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Idaho Correctional Center control could be put up to bid

BOISE – State agencies should be able to competitively bid on government work earmarked for private contractors, a legislator argues.

The proposal, drafted by state Rep. John Gannon, is aimed at giving Idaho’s prison system a chance to compete with private prison companies for operation of the troubled Idaho Correctional Center, the state’s only privately run prison. Gannon, D-Boise, said he’s unconvinced the state is saving any money by paying Corrections Corp. of America about $30 million a year to operate the medium-security prison.

“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 state Board of Correction voted to seek new bids to operate the Idaho Correctional Center starting next year but rejected the idea of considering the cost of 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 for comparison, but the board refused, and Otter backed the decision.

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 that 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 higher staff-to-inmate 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, he 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.

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