A baker by trade, state Rep. Henry Burns delivered brownies, cookies and other sweets to his colleagues last week as he ambled around the Louisiana House floor to talk to them about a controversial topic.
Burns, R-Haughton, is sponsoring Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposal to sell prisons in Allen, Avoyelles and Winn parishes. The legislation, House Bill 545, is scheduled to go before the House Committee on Appropriations Monday.
Whether Burns satisfied legislators’ concerns along with their sweet tooth is unclear.
“Everyone thinks I’m Bobby’s boy,” Burns said. “I did it, because I was afraid the money wouldn’t be available” for health care and other state expenses.
Critics of the proposal question why the state would sell assets and throw hundreds of prison workers out of a job.
Jindal said the idea makes sense from a financial standpoint. He said the state stands to save $200 million over 20 years in operational costs by allowing the private sector to operate state prisons.
Opponents to the proposal claim the votes are not there to get it out of the House committee much less off the House floor.
“I’m optimistic, yes, but I’m an optimist about every bill in the governor’s package,” Jindal said. “I’m confident, as people hear the testimony on Monday, that they’ll see that this is a good step forward for the state of Louisiana. It saves us money.”
HB545 would authorize the state to sell the Allen, Avoyelles and Winn Correctional Centers.
The prisons would be purchased by private companies and would continue to house state inmates.
Allen and Winn already are run by private companies with their own work forces. Avoyelles employs state workers who would lose their jobs under the proposal.
The governor wanted to use roughly $86 million from the prison sales to pay health-care costs for the poor.
The House Committee on Appropriations purged the money from proposed state spending plans and made deeper cuts.
The Jindal administration worked to reverse the cuts by asking prison workers’ families to lean on their legislators. The administration warned that spending cuts could force the closures of five prisons, including Avoyelles.
Mistie Dubroc, the wife of a state correctional officer, said the administration phoned her.
“I informed them that ... if (the Jindal administration) really did think the sky was falling, they should close five prisons and release 4,000-plus inmates and see how well they do in October elections. They thanked me for my comments and quickly hung up,” said Dubroc, who lives in Hessmer.
Dubroc helped organize demonstrations at the State Capitol against the proposed prison sales. Her husband works at Dabadie Correctional Center, which the governor wants to privatize, but not sell.
State Rep. Robert Johnson railed against the administration’s phone calls.
Johnson, D-Marksville, accused the governor of being punitive out of anger.
“I’ll tell you who I don’t believe in, and that’s Gov. Bobby Jindal and his practices,” Johnson said recently on the House floor. “Stand strong. Stand strong for my constituents.”
Burns picked up the legislation after another lawmaker dropped it. Burns said he is concerned about the health-care needs of the elderly, disabled and financially distressed.
The most-common argument against the proposal, Burns said, is the disastrous results of the privatization of a juvenile prison in Tallulah. Alleged abuse of youths at the facility under the control of a private company led to lawsuits and eventual intervention by the federal government.
House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, said the experience at Tallulah hangs heavily over the governor’s push to privatize prisons that house adult offenders.
“It’s an uphill idea until you can show there’s a true financial savings. ... We certainly don’t want to get into a Tallulah situation,” Tucker said.
Burns said he is trying to address the concerns and fears by pointing out that 16 inmate facilities in Louisiana currently are under the supervision of private companies.
“People who bought into that early on didn’t know about the 16 that were working,” he said of the Tallulah argument.
State Rep. Chris Hazel, R-Pineville, said he is doubtful the appropriations committee he sits on will advance Burns’ bill to the full House.
“I don’t like showing my cards, (but) I don’t think the votes are there,” he said.
Hazel said the Jindal administration is pushing the bill because only three weeks are left in the legislative session.
“In order for the administration to try to move the bill, they’ve got to take it up. ... It’s past Memorial Day,” he said.
Burns said the administration is not dense.
“They see the reality of it,” he said. “Each day we’re gaining more and more support, but we’re certainly not at 50-50.”