In a close vote, a Louisiana House committee delivered a defeat to Gov. Bobby Jindal on Monday by rejecting his bid to pursue the sale of three prisons.
House Bill 545 by state Rep. Henry Burns, R-Haughton, is part of the governor’s legislative package. Jindal wants to sell prisons in Allen, Avoyelles and Winn parishes, a move that could possibly throw hundreds of state workers in rural areas out of jobs.
The House Committee on Appropriations voted 13-12 in favor of involuntarily deferring the legislation, effectively killing it, despite the administration’s insistence that the proposal could save the state millions of dollars on operating and maintaining the prisons.
State Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, provided the deciding vote after hours of testimony on the proposal.
In a prepared statement after the vote, the governor said he is not declaring defeat.
“We’ve got about three weeks left of session and we will continue fighting for our reforms until sine die,” Jindal said in a text-messaged statement, referring to the June 23 end of the session.
The governor’s top aides pushed members of the House Committee on Appropriations to embrace the proposal. Prison workers sat through hours of testimony to impress upon legislators their disdain for the bill.
“This bill is not about winning or losing,” Burns told the committee. “It is about the reality of our economic times.”
State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, disagreed. Avoyelles Correctional Center is in his district. “There are going to be winners and there are going to be a lot of losses,” he said.
Johnson said the losers were the prison workers sitting in the committee room.
HB545 would allow the Jindal administration to pursue selling prisons in Allen, Avoyelles and Winn parishes. The prisons still would house state inmates but would be run and owned by private companies with their own workers. A legislative budget committee would have the option of rejecting or approving offers to buy the prisons.
The governor wants to privatize — but not sell — a fourth prison, Dabadie Correctional Center in Pineville.
The state would receive money for the sale of the facilities while retaining the responsibility of paying for the inmates’ care.
Burns worked ahead of the committee meeting to convince legislators that the sale is a good idea. Prison workers held rallies on the State Capitol steps protesting the proposal.
A flurry of amendments revamped the legislation.
One of those amendments scuttled the governor’s plan to use money from the prison sales to pay health-care costs for the poor. Instead, the money only could be used for limited purposes, such as paying down state debt.
Legislators also amended the bill to prohibit campaign contributions by prison operators and to give prison workers an edge in hiring by the private sector.
State Rep. Chris Hazel, R-Pineville, proposed an amendment to ensure that the per diem rate is $31.50 per day. The per diem rate refers to the daily expense of caring for an inmate.
Stephen Waguespack, the governor’s executive counsel, objected, saying legislators will have a voice in the per diem when the legislative budget committee approves the ultimate offers to buy the prisons.
Hazel’s amendment failed.
The legislation sparked many words of opposition but few statements of support outside of the testimony of the bill’s author and the governor’s staff.
Nearly 100 people and organizations filed cards with the committee expressing their opposition to the proposal.
State Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, compared the proposal to a husband selling his wife only to lease her back and assume the financial responsibilities of caring for her.
“Some things you just don’t do,” Hardy said.
Mistie Dubroc, whose husband is a corrections officer at Dabadie, told committee members that prison workers feel like their lives have become pawns in a political game.
“We do honest work for fair pay. We are taxpayers, model citizens and a benefit to the state of Louisiana,” she said.
Waguespack urged legislators to give the administration the opportunity to explore the prison sales. He said it was important to allow offers to be taken to determine how money could be generated and saved through the proposal.
“We beg you to allow us to take that next step,” Waguespack said.
Prison workers’ relatives countered the proposal puts at risk good jobs in rural areas.
Throughout the session, legislators raised concerns about selling state assets and possibly incurring increased costs in the future once the new contracts with the private sector expired.
VOTING FOR DEFERRING THE PRISON PROPOSAL (13): State Reps. Chris Hazel, R-Pineville, James Armes, D-Leesville, Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, Mickey Guillory, D-Eunice, Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, H. Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, Tom McVea, R-St. Francisville, Gary Smith, D-Norco, Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, Charmaine Stiaes, D-New Orleans, and Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport.
VOTING AGAINST DEFERRING THE PRISON PROPOSAL (12): State Reps. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, Bubba Chaney, R-Rayville, Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, Noble Ellington, R-Winnsboro, Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, Anthony Ligi, R-Metairie, Jim Morris, R-Oil City, Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, Mert Smiley, R-St. Amant, and Bodi White, R-Central.