[Editor's Note: The last paragraph in this story was added Tuesday afternoon following a brief phone discussion with Rep. Page Cortez.]
Lafayette’s members on the powerful House Appropriations Committee were divided Monday on deferring — effectively killing — a bill that would authorize the sale of four prisons in north and central Louisiana to private companies. Democrat Rickey Hardy joined the 13-vote majority in squashing the bill, which was a key component of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s legislative package for this session. Republican Page Cortez was among 12 committee members to vote against the deferral.
Although the state would still be the hook for paying a per diem to house state Department of Corrections inmates, the sale of the prisons was touted as a means of raising up to $211 million. Opponents of the bill argued it was fiscally irresponsible to use one-time monies for recurring budget expenses.
The committee chamber was packed to the gills during the almost four-hour hearing. Many in attendance were employees of the prisons proposed for sale in Allen, Avoyelles and Winn parishes who would likely lose their jobs if the prisons moved into private ownership. Hardy drew a smattering of chuckles and applause, prompting Chairman Jim Fannin to call the chamber to order when, more than three hours into the meeting and following a Q & A with administration representatives, he observed, “The prison sale, to me, is the prime example of a married couple. The husband and the wife are married, and he sells or leases his wife but he’s still married and has all the responsibilities to go with it. Any man with a little common sense would know that’s a bad deal — some things you just don’t do.”
The Ind spoke early Tuesday afternoon with Cortez, who points out that the bill had been amended during the hearing and would only have authorized the administration to send out a request for proposals for purchasing the prisons. The Joint Committee on the Budget, according to one amendment, would receive the top three proposals by Dec. 31 for review, but initiating the RFP process did not guarantee the prisons would be sold to private contractors. Cortez maintains that his vote not to defer the bill “was simply to give [the administration] authority” to do the RFP and his “contention is still that [selling the prisons] is not a sound financial decision.”