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An Exercise In Micromanagement? Millions Approved For Prisons; Minor Details Debated For Hours

Wed., Jan. 15, 1997

While legislative budget writers on Tuesday hacked away at the minuscule parts of Gov. Phil Batt’s emergency plans to augment the existing state spending plan, they also put their blessings on millions with little or no discussion.

One member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee called the exercise an “outbreak of micromanagement.”

Millions of dollars in general tax money were approved for prison overcrowding with scant debate. But the committee bogged down in debate over work stations for the State Insurance Fund, and on attorney fees for inmates who have successfully sued the state.

Some veteran members of the House-Senate panel explained the effort this way: People are able to grasp what several thousand or tens of thousands of dollars are, but cannot comprehend amounts in the millions that make up the overall state budget of more than $3 billion in general taxes and other funds.

But Republican Sen. Evan Frasure of Pocatello, the transportation chairman serving his first term on the budget panel, said the kind of debate that he has helped spark the past two sessions is just beginning.

“We’re new on the committee, and we’re going to question everything,” Frasure said. “We’re not going to rubber stamp. That’s the only way we’re going to free up some money. I’m worried about education, especially higher education. I know that’s a heck of a way to do business, but that’s the only way we’re going to do.”

Earlier, even senior members of the committee were rankled by the prison system’s request for $106,000 to pay the fees the American Civil Liberties Union incurred in successfully representing inmates seeking access to library materials and demanding due process before their so-called rider status is revoked.

Damages are still being negotiated with the ACLU and the inmates, prison officials said, but the state has been ordered to cover the inmates’ legal costs.

“This is pretty exorbitant,” Senate Finance Chairman Atwell Parry, R-Melba, said. “It seems I’d almost be better off living in a cell than I am now.”

Frasure’s suggestion that the state try to recover the money from the prison officials who implemented the policies challenged by the inmates fell on deaf ears. And Parry’s proposed arbitrary reduction in the amount to $75,000 was met with a warning that the balance would carry 10 percent interest until finally paid.

“It kind of rubs you when you have to pay these bills, but I don’t see that we’re really saving anything,” Democratic Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin of Orofino said.

But the committee decided to simply put off a decision until next month.


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