SADOW: The Anti-Privatization Folks Find Out It Can Be Better Than The Alternative

Facing fiscal pressure and changing demographics, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration went for Plan B concerning correctional institutions, probably leading a number of state and local policy-makers bemoaning that they got what they wished for.

This past legislation session, and in the previous one, Jindal had budgeted to privatize some state prisons beyond the two already permitted in state law, as well as this past session planned to close two others. As occurred the year before, no further privatization occurred, but the closures happened despite an attempt to make an end run around Jindal’s authority on the matter.

Apparently, the numbers indicated that this was not enough, so last week the Administration announced the closure in two months of the C. Paul Phelps facility in southwestern Louisiana that would save an estimated $12 million a year. Demographic and local capacity trends such as they are, that space has turned surplus. Naturally, the decision left some state legislators and city officials whining about how a few local residents will lose jobs and a few businesses will lose subsidized inmate labor.

Ironically, one of those local officials hoped the future would hold a private firm taking over the facility, an outcome area legislators undoubtedly would find helpful as they tend to place more primacy on whether they get blamed for job losses in these cases than on the actual economics and needs of the state as a whole. Besides the usual selfish populist ranting, some of those legislators also complained they got very short notice of the closing even though they have no formal role in this decision-making process – betraying the understanding by all parties involved that, if given more lead time, local special interests could try to prevent something in the interest of the entire state from its implementation.

One of them, state Rep. Brett Geymann, might well have gotten hoisted on his own petard. Geymann has created a persona for himself as a “budget hawk” because he opposes the use of monies derived from excess special recurring revenue sources dedicated for certain purposes, called “one-time money,” from being pooled with unencumbered funds to pay for general state services – such as prison operations. Maybe the use of more one-time money might have kept the Phelps Center open? Or maybe this event will lead Geymann to drop the hypocrisy of this approach, because one-time money are revenues whose only difference from any other kind is that the Legislature locked them away, meaning they would cease to be so if Geymann and the rest of the Legislature got rid of some of the hundreds of dedications and the false distinction between monies that comes with that.

But he’s not the only one finding getting what he wants unpleasant. Repeated attempts by the Administration to privatize Avoyelles Correctional Center have failed in the face of intense local and ideological opposition – but opposition that could have been overcome by a display of political courage from legislators from other areas of the state and those committed to right-sized government, and from lobbying by the local officials they represent. Maybe if that had gone off, again there could have been enough money left to keep Phelps going.

So the lesson the Administration needs to impart, subtly of course, is that unless legislators are willing to back privatization efforts stalled because of the peculiar ideologies of some against right-sizing government and of a desire to continue local political payoffs, then it’ll skip that option and head straight to closings, and not just prisons but of other things also like hospitals (or reducing them to considerably downsized status). They might be craven, but legislators aren’t entirely stupid; they’ll recognize that a half loaf is better than none at all.

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