Lobbyist brings home prison vote

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

Hedging its bet, the Kenai Peninsula Borough put all its legislative eggs in one basket and, thanks to lobbyist Mark Higgins, struck what could be gold.

"All I can tell you is that I was impressed," said borough assembly President Tim Navarre of Higgins' role in the passage of legislation that authorizes the Alaska Department of Corrections to negotiate with the borough for private prison space. "I think the borough got more than its money's worth."

In January, three priorities topped the borough's wish list: a natural gas pipeline with a Cook Inlet terminus, development of Cook Inlet's west side, and a private medium-security prison. In February, after completing a "request for qualification" process, the borough assembly selected Texas-based Cornell Companies to lead a team effort to plan and promote the 800- to 1,000-bed prison.

At the time, Navarre said, one of the reasons for selecting that team was its grasp of the promotion required to get legislative approval for the project. The team was comprised of Corrections Group North, a private corporation formed through a cooperative relationship between Cornell Corrections of Alaska and Weimar Investments; Livingston Slone Inc., an Anchorage architectural firm; Kenai Natives Association; Neeser Construction/VECO Construction; and well-known Alaska lobbyists Joe Hayes and Kent Dawson.

On Feb. 26, 2001, freshman legislator Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, introduced HB 149, the prison bill. On March 8, the borough signed a $40,000 contract with Higgins. In the closing days of the legislative session, the bill passed. And on Tuesday, Gov. Tony Knowles signed it into law.

Higgins duties, per the contract, were to:

n Attempt to secure state approval for Corrections to contract with the Kenai Peninsula Borough for the prison to be located in the borough;

n Work closely with Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and other borough officials as directed by the mayor;

n Assist in all phases of the borough's government relations activities related to the prison; and

n Keep the mayor apprised of activities related to the project.

An additional requirement, that Higgins not engage in activities contrary to the borough's interests or direction for the duration of the agreement, which expires June 30, was aided by the fact that Higgins also was a lobbyist for VECO.

"I was aware of the VECO issue, and that's why that could have been a problem if we had gone with another team," said Mayor Bagley, who was introduced to Higgins by former assembly member Jack Brown, of Nikiski. "But we went with Cornell, the native association and VECO team, so I didn't look at that as a problem.

"He worked hard for us. A couple of other people turned in applications. We didn't really do a full-blown search, but there were other people that heard we were looking for a state lobbyist and talked to me. But Mark was pretty much hands down the favorite."

Higgins said his connection to VECO was a plus for the borough.

"The fact that I was lobbying for VECO gave credibility to the borough's involvement in the project," Higgins said. "I think it was very synergistic that I lobbied for both."

Higgins said he was involved in the attempt to create a private prison in abandoned facilities at Ft. Greely through legislation introduced by Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, in 1998. That project had virtually ground to a halt. Passage of Chenault's bill officially shifted the focus to the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

"I didn't have a lot of time and had to move quickly," said Higgins of HB 149's short time line. "My role was to help with key legislators. I also worked with Chenault and worked closely with Tim Navarre."

Higgins said he and Bagley were in contact at least once a day, if not more. He credited Bagley with being thorough and "sticking to his guns" on the process the borough has created to explore the development of the prison.

Although he characterized the prison as a major project, he said his effort to ensure its passage wasn't unique.

"You have to start with the basic merits of a project," he said. "It has to make sense."

Of Higgins' responsibilities to VECO, Navarre said, "In this particular case, VECO was dealing with a couple of other small issues. They weren't really involved in the prison issues. They had him on some other issues, but it didn't take him away from the job for us.

"He was mostly doing the job for us and he made that clear with VECO. He wasn't referring back to VECO saying here's what's happening on the prison."

Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, who serves on the House Finance Committee, said Higgins helped provide details concerning the prison project that made it possible for Lancaster to overcome his concerns and support the legislation.

The Soldotna city council, however, passed a resolution opposing construction of the private prison.

"He got some of our answers," Lancaster said. "Not all of them, obviously. But now that the bill has been signed, we can move on and get down to the nitty gritty and see if it will work or not. There's lots of work left to do."

Sen. John Torgerson, R-Soldotna, who has consistently characterized the borough's selection of Cornell's team as a non-competitive process, said Higgins had not been by Torgerson's office.

"It must have been that I was opposed to what they hired the lobbyist for," Torgerson said. "I never talked to him, and he never talked to me. The mayor was never in my office, either. A few assembly people were, but that's it.

"If the borough spent as much time on legislation that helps the entire borough instead of having a narrow focus on one issue, we could have got some legislation that would have affected the whole borough."

Specifically, Torgerson referenced legislation he sponsored to expand Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward and a bill directing the Department of Natural Resources to build 10,000-gallon underground storage tanks to help protect homes and businesses from the threat of wildfire.

"I don't know if (Higgins) did any good or not," Torgerson said. "I guess the end result is that he got a bill passed. Although as flawed as much as it is, it did pass."

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