Bill would require Idaho to compare state, private prison costs
BOISE – After Idaho’s Board of Correction refused to consider state operation as it seeks a new operator for a troubled prison south of Boise, a state lawmaker has drafted legislation requiring all state agencies to consider that option when they solicit bids.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said he’s not convinced the state is saving any money by paying Corrections Corp. of America $30 million a year to operate the Idaho Correctional Center. “There is a view that private contractors can perform functions less expensively, but I think sometimes they can’t,” he said.
In late June, the Board of Correction voted to seek new bids to operate the Idaho Correctional Center starting next year, but rejected the idea of considering state operation as well. Board Chairwoman Robin Sandy said at the time that state operation would grow Idaho’s government, which she opposed. “There would be several hundred more state employees,” she said.
Five years ago, the state Department of Correction sought permission from Gov. Butch Otter and the board to submit its own bid, but the board refused and Otter deferred to the board.
His spokesman, Jon Hanian, said Wednesday that Otter’s position hasn’t changed. “The governor doesn’t seek to micromanage his agencies,” Hanian said.
Gannon drafted his bill after reviewing pay figures from other states showing that Idaho’s average wage for prison guards, $29,000 a year, is $10,000 below the national median; neighboring Nevada starts its guards at $37,563 a year. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median wage for guards at privately operated prisons is $30,460. Gannon said that shows private prison companies can operate more cheaply in some states, but not in Idaho.
“There are other reasons why I would be uncomfortable with a private prison, but I’m just looking at it from a dollar-and-cents way,” Gannon said. “It just kind of jumped out to me.”
The Associated Press analyzed the costs in 2012 and found that any savings at the ICC compared to state-run prisons are more than offset by other factors, including contract oversight costs and the fact that inmates with chronic medical or mental health needs are barred from ICC, allowing it to have a lower inmate-to-staff ratio than state lockups that take all prisoners.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was noncommittal Wednesday on the idea of legislation, but said, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to bid it, to get a price from either side. … You would think that would be just a good practice.”
Bedke said he’s not opposed to private prisons and doesn’t want to “second-guess the actions of the board,” but noted, “Ultimately, we’re the keepers of the taxpayers’ dollars.”
He said it sounds like an issue to be considered by the judiciary committees in the Legislature. “This is certainly a topic that we can discuss,” Bedke said.
During this year’s legislative session, Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, attempted to tie strings to the state prison system’s budget requiring that it consider state operation when it re-bid the ICC contract. Her move was voted down in the Legislature’s joint budget committee, though many members said they supported it in principle – they just didn’t think that should be the budget committee’s role.
Gannon said, “I’m just sorry we didn’t move forward with some legislation at that time. But I think there’s been a number of developments since then,” including continued lawsuits and allegations of understaffing and violence at ICC. He said, “I wanted to get it out there to get some discussion going about the idea.”
The bill would require any state department soliciting private bids to also consider bids submitted by a state agency that’s legally authorized to provide the service in question.
Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray said the request for proposals for a new private prison contractor is being developed now and will be issued Nov. 30, with bids sought by February. At this point, he said, the department won’t be developing its own bid.