Gov. Steve Bullock says he won’t rush into a new contract with the operator of the private prison in Shelby – even though it could yield the state as much as $30 million to offset planned budget cuts of “essential services” for the poor and disabled.
In an interview this week, Bullock told MTN News that in the wake of 2017 reforms designed to reduce the amount of people in prison in Montana, his administration wants to carefully evaluate how long and whether the Crossroads Correctional Center is needed.
But a key lawmaker who supports the private prison southwest of Shelby said Thursday that Bullock’s excuses for not yet extending the contract “is just a way to walk through time and do nothing.”
“I think it’s an absolutely ludicrous idea that we’re suddenly going to run out of a supply of prisoners, because of some minor changes made to the criminal-justice system in the last legislative session,” said Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad.
“The only opportunity the governor has to use this money is right now, to relieve some of the pressures on core, rural services that he was so kind to chop first,” he added.
The prison is in Cook’s House district.
CoreCivic, the Tennessee-based company that owns the prison, is nearing the end of a 20-year contract to operate the facility, in June 2019.
During the contract, the state has been paying CoreCivic a small, per-prisoner “use fee” that can be used by the state to buy the prison at fair-market value.
Late last year, Cook and others supporters of the prison said if Bullock agreed to a long-term extension of CoreCivic’s contract beyond 2019, the company would return the accumulated use fees to the state – about $32 million — to help with the state’s budget shortfall.
Bullock essentially rejected that offer. But during a November special session, the Republican majority at the Legislature passed a bill designed to force the governor’s hand. It included that money in a budget-balancing package, but only if Bullock extends the contract.
The bill says if the contract with CoreCivic is renegotiated and the use-fee money returned to the state, the first $15 million will go into the state’s firefighting fund and anything over that amount would fund “essential services” for low-income children, the disabled and the elderly.
Cook told MTN News Thursday that he believes the entire $30 million, or more, could ultimately be used to offset human-service budget cuts that the administration is preparing to make, to balance the budget.
Bullock, however, said Tuesday he doesn’t see how a new contract would yield any more than $15 million to $17 million, under the law passed by Republicans – and that it’s just bad business to be pressured into extending a contract that may not be needed.
“I want to make sure when we go forward, as we look at Shelby, that it is a good deal for Montanans,” he told MTN News.
Bullock said his administration is taking steps to appraise the value of the prison and assess how it fits into the state prison system, in the coming years.
“Without any sort of an assessment of our needs going forward, without an appraisal to say what this (prison) is worth – I think it’s premature to say, `Here’s what we should do with it.’”
A CoreCivic spokesman said Friday that the company is "proud of (its) nearly 20-year history in the state of Montana," and is willing to help the state "address various challenges."
"We stand ready to assist during these challenging budgetary times, while continuing to provide the state with flexibility going forward by providing our partner with on-going purchase and termination rights," said spokesman Jonathan Burns.
Cook said he sees no scenario where the Shelby prison won’t be needed for years into the future – and that if the governor doesn’t act, the money will stay with CoreCivic.