To sign, not sign or veto, that is the question. And only Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles has the answer.
In the final days before Knowles announces his decision, advocates and opponents of the state's first private prison continue to wrestle with the issues. Today, the governor must act on legislation that would authorize the Department of Corrections to negotiate with the Kenai Peninsula Borough for the care and housing of 800 state inmates.
The Legislature can override a veto with a two-thirds vote of the total membership.
Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, ruled out the "not sign" option.
"The options in this case are sign or veto," said King. "He very rarely uses the option of not signing."
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, attempts to make up for a shortage of prison beds in the state through construction and operation of a privately operated 800-bed medium-security prison. It targets a daily per-prisoner, per-bed rate of $89, 18 to 20 percent less than the state's current average rate.
The state currently pays Corrections Corporation of America $54.57 per prisoner per day for 800 Alaska inmates housed in a private medium-security prison in Florence, Ariz.
"This bill authorizes the state to enter into negotiations with the borough," King said. "It is not technically binding. A lot of terms and conditions are subject to negotiation, but the bill authorizes the process to get under way."
In February, the borough assembly selected a team led by Cornell Companies to address the planning and promotion of the prison project. Other team members, as outlined in the packet provided by Cornell, include:
n Corrections Group North, a private corporation developed through a cooperative affiliation between Cornell Corrections of Alaska and Weimar Investments;
n Livingston Slone Inc., an architectural firm;
n Kenai Natives Association (KNA);
n Neeser Construction/VECO Construction; and
n Lobbyists Joe Hayes and Kent Dawson.
"I obviously hope that he'll sign the legislation and then we'll go from there," said borough Mayor Dale Bagley, adding that the private prison means positive change for the borough.
"The biggest thing is that it would provide a diverse economy. We already have three strong industries. Prisons would add a fourth," he said, referring to oil, fishing and tourism. "The more diverse, the better you are in case one doesn't do well."
Bagley said the prison would offer 225 correctional worker positions that would pay "somewhere in the neighborhood of $13.50 an hour, or $28,000 a year. That will be a lot of good paying jobs. If we don't get good paying jobs, we won't be interested in pursuing this."
A "trickle-down effect" would create other opportunities, according to Bagley.
"We're hoping to partner with the University of Alaska to have training for all the correctional workers," Bagley said.
He anticipated that "small businesses that are making a certain amount each year will find themselves making more. There are a lot of small businesses that are barely making it. This will certainly help out. And you might see other businesses move to the area with the additional growth."
Bagley said an influx of families would boost the school district's projected decline in school population.
Earlier this month, Bagley received a letter from Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh detailing her concerns about the prison, namely cost-effectiveness.
"That's something we need to sit down and talk with her and try to resolve," Bagley said.
If Knowles signs the bill, Bagley said, the borough would proceed with a feasibility study, securing the land KNA has offered for the prison and developing the necessary contracts and agreements.
"If he vetoes the bill, I don't know what that would mean," Bagley said. "I think at that point we would just have to regroup and see where to go from there."
Besides supplying the site, KNA's role has been to mobilize support of the Native community. KNA also reported being able to qualify for grants to develop programs to reduce Native American offender recidivism.
On Friday, KNA President Richard Segura and Vice President Elsie Maillelle-Hendryx chose not to comment.
"The issue before the Legislature on the Kenai prison bill seemed for a while in debate to be about Native programming, but it really isn't," said Bill Parker, deputy commissioner for Corrections.
The department currently has a full-time cultural affairs coordinator. Commissioner Pugh said Corrections attempts to make its programs culturally relevant.
"Could we do better? Yes, but that's certainly not a forgotten element," she said.
She recently asked 42 prisoners in a therapeutic alcohol treatment program at the Wildwood Correctional Complex if the program had enough cultural relevance.
"I got some of the most amazing answers," Pugh said. "The first guy who raised his hand was an African American, and he said, 'Mrs. Pugh, I need to tell you that drugs don't recognize ethnicity.' An Alaska Native said to me, 'I've been drunk for 20 years. My culture and my tradition are always with me. If I'm not sober, they're not part of me.'"
Representing Sterling on the borough assembly, Grace Merkes has consistently voiced concern about the prison project.
"My preference is that he will veto it," said Merkes of the decision facing Knowles.
She said she believes that would allow the borough to reevaluate the project with a business plan.
"I don't know that the veto will happen, but even if he does not veto, we'll have to wait until we have a decent feasibility study done, which I see being four to six months if it's a good feasibility study."
Merkes said she would like to see the issue put to a vote of the people.
"The other thing that really bothers me is that when the prison became a concept for the assembly, it was under the (assumption) that it would save the state money," she said. "Since then, things have changed, and from the numbers that we are given, it really won't save the state any money.
"Now it's being pushed by the Native groups to bring their people back home, which isn't a bad thing, but things have changed so much since it started. It bothers me that they are saying that they're going to have good cultural education-type things at this prison. Can that actually be written into a contract? I don't know."
As a private citizen, Merkes said she sent an e-mail urging Knowles to veto the bill.
Pete Sprague represents Soldotna on the borough assembly and voted against the contract with the Cornell-led team. He recently announced his desire to put the project on the October ballot for an advisory vote.
"The governor's decision will give us some direction," Sprague said. "If he vetoes it, it will give us extra information on how to approach the Legislature next year. If he does sign it, there's still no guarantee that the project will happen."
Taking it one step further, on May 11, James Price, of the Citizens for a Private Prison Free Peninsula, filed with the borough that organization's intent to ask voters in October to "prohibit the private for-profit operation of a prison or correctional institution with the Kenai Peninsula Borough."
Borough Clerk Linda Murphy will announce her decision today about whether the application complies with borough code requirements.
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