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Idaho prison funding bill escapes budget ax

Tue., March 8, 2011

BOISE – Idaho’s state prison system would escape the cuts other state agencies are facing next year; instead, under a budget crafted by legislative budget writers Monday, it’d see a 5.3 percent increase in state spending.

“You really don’t have a lot of choices here,” said state Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell. “Public safety is a function of government, and when you’ve got so many inmates … nobody wants them out on the streets.”

The budget still falls $2.6 million short of estimates of what the prison system will cost the state next year, but it’s close to spending levels recommended by Gov. Butch Otter, said Bolz, House Appropriations vice chairman, who proposed the budget plan. “You basically hope the numbers go down,” he said. If they don’t, the state would have to approve supplemental appropriations next year to make up the difference.

The prison budget-setting came as Idaho is bracing for big cuts in key services like Medicaid-funded health care for the disabled and public school funding. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has been attempting to slash all state agency budgets by 2.2 percent beyond Otter’s proposed $35 million in targeted cuts but has been finding that task difficult. Before approving the $7.8 million boost in prison funding on Monday, JFAC already was more than $1.6 million behind its goal, with most of the state budget still to be set.

The prison budget bill still needs approval from the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely are changed once they’re set by the joint committee.

The plan funds the 3 percent increase required by the state’s contract with Corrections Corp. of America to operate the Idaho Correctional Center, the problem-plagued private prison south of Boise. The privately operated state lockup has been the target of multiple lawsuits over violence and other issues.

“I’m tired of reading about what’s happening in that prison,” said state Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. “We have an obligation to make sure people are supervised and safe.”

Bolz said he thought the state Department of Correction was “making some changes” in response to the incidents there, including “monitoring much better now” and addressing how authorities there respond to incidents. He noted 35 to 40 percent of the state’s corrections budget now goes to contract payments that are preset.

Other than Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who opposed a portion of the plan calling for greater spending on the private prison, the panel’s North Idaho members, including state Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, and state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, backed the budget plan.

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