Opinion

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Guest Column

Politics Above Common Sense for Shelby Prison

The $35.7 million deal that CoreCivic offered Bullock deserves further explanation and serious examination by the people of Montana

In one hand you have a problem that involves the health and welfare of a large number of people. And in the other you have a solution that will go a long way towards helping these people. What would the logical solution be?

This is the conundrum facing Gov. Steve Bullock. In one hand he has made drastic cuts to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) budget that are impacting services and programs for Montanans who need assistance the most. In the other hand, Bullock has been offered $35.7 million to fill holes in the state’s budget, including for DPHHS.

It is an unfortunate reality of our state’s financial situation that some DPHHS budget reductions were necessary, and the governor has the authority to dictate where in the agency’s budget the cuts are made. Under legislative recommendations, these should have been made to the agency’s bureaucracy, not to the services on the streets of Montana.

The $35.7 million deal that private prison owner CoreCivic offered Bullock deserves further explanation and serious examination by the people of Montana.

CoreCivic owns the 700-bed Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby, and during Bullock’s November special session they offered Montanans $35.7 million to renew its contract with the state. The contract is set to expire next year, at which time the state will have the option to purchase the prison – a move that is basically a nonstarter for the Republican-controlled Legislature in our current financial environment.

During the course of deal-making, CoreCivic agreed to increase correctional officer wages by 11.5 percent to bring them closer to the wages offered at the Montana State Prison, and to provide more treatment and rehabilitation programs for inmates. And let’s not forget the $35.7 million, which the state badly needs right now.

Let’s be clear that CoreCivic is not just offering $35.7 million out of their pockets. That money has been paid by the state – meaning taxpayers – into an account that could be used if and when the state were in a position to purchase the prison. Think of it like a savings account to offset the purchase cost. But, like I already mentioned, the Republican-controlled Legislature will not authorize this purchase at this time.

Going back to the problem – thousands of Montanans losing services that they rely on for daily life because of mental or physical disability. Organizations like Helena Industries, which offers services to more than 700 people across Montana, shutting down and declaring bankruptcy because state funding was swiped. Could this $35.7 million help them? You bet.

The governor can perform mental gymnastics with the CoreCivic offer all day long, but when you have a solution that fits one of your major problems, best idea is just to take it.

Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, is speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.

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