Jindal ready to move on prison sales

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Michelle Millhollon

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Wednesday that he wants to move forward with the sale of prisons in Avoyelles, Allen and Winn parishes to generate nearly $100 million to help address a state budget crunch.

Jindal also said he plans to put the Avoyelles Parish Correctional Center as well as a prison in Pineville under the management of local sheriffs.

The Avoyelles Parish sheriff disputed the Jindal administration's announcement that his office would buy the Cottonport prison as well as operate it.

"I ain't buying no prison," Avoyelles Parish Sheriff Doug Anderson said.

Jindal tossed out a number of suggestions late last year as he met with lawmakers about how to address an anticipated $1.6 billion state operating budget shortfall in the state fiscal year that starts July 1.

Those suggestions included the prison sales, lottery securitization, a sale-leaseback of state buildings and privatizing a state employee health plan.

Jindal said he no longer is considering selling state buildings and leasing them back or getting an upfront portion of the future growth in lottery proceeds.

He said selling state buildings and leasing them back would not be a good deal for taxpayers and that securitizing the lottery lacks sense.

So far, Jindal only is proposing the prison sales. Selling the three prisons would require legislative approval.

Jindal can move more immediately on another part of his prison reorganization: Paying local sheriffs to run Dabadie Correctional Center in Pineville and Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport.

The Jindal administration estimates the move would save the state $2.8 million in the new fiscal year and $10.3 million the following fiscal year.

The correctional centers in Allen and Winn parishes already are run by private companies with private employees. The prisons in Pineville and Cottonport are staffed by state employees.

The proposal encountered a huge snag Wednesday when Anderson disputed the Jindal administration's contention that his office is buying one of the prisons.

Anderson said he is interested in running the Cottonport prison to ensure the employees can transfer their state retirement and medical insurance benefits into the sheriff's system.

He said he is not interested in buying the prison despite the Jindal administration's announcement that legislation will be crafted to sell the facility to the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office.

The news release issued by the Jindal administration quotes the state Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc as saying: "As the operator of the facility, it makes sense for the Avoyelles Sheriff's Office to also own the facility."

After reading the news release during a telephone interview, Anderson said it is incorrect.

"There's no way I'm going to buy it," he said. "I'm not going to invest in it at all. It wouldn't be ethical."

Anderson said he does not want to be in the position of owning a prison in which he houses state inmates for a profit.

Even after selling the prisons, the state still would have to pay the operator to care for the inmates housed in them.

Pam LaBorde, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, responded to Anderson's comment late Wednesday with a prepared statement from LeBlanc.

"In the event the Avoyelles and Rapides Parish Sheriffs do not want to take over these prisons, the department will begin to seek private sector bids on the facilities to move forward with their sale/operations; and we expect this process to achieve the same level of savings," LeBlanc stated.

State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, said he is concerned about state employees losing their jobs and their pay levels.

He said he found out about the governor's proposal in a phone call from LeBlanc on Tuesday night - a day before it was announced.

"In terms of the specifics of it, we don't know," Johnson said. "It was definitely kind of sprung on us."

He said he would not be in favor of a proposal that eliminates jobs or offers employees lower pay under a new employer.

The governor said an employment preference will be given to existing workers.

LaBorde said the operations of the Pineville and Cottonport prisons can be transferred through cooperative endeavor agreements.

The actual prison sales will require legislation.

The Jindal administration indicated that buyers will be asked to pay $33 million for each prison and state in advance how much would be charged to care for prisoners over a 20-year period.

Legislation would be considered in the regular legislative session that starts April 25.