Cell Out Arizona: Arizona’s Budget Giveaway to the Private Prison Industry

Written by Cell-Out-Arizona, Tucson Citizen

Yesterday, the state legislature approved a compromise budget they negotiated with the Governor.

The budget agreement would:

  • Fund 500 state-run maximum security prison beds we don’t need
  • Fund 1,000 private prison beds we don’t need
  • Pay for these prison beds by stealing $50 million from a mortgage settlement that was intended to provide relief for victims of the foreclosure crisis
  • Remove the requirement to study the quality and cost of public vs. private prisons

In his defense of her “don’t bother me with the facts” decision, spokesman Matt Benson said the Governor believes the cost comparison and quality review is, “of little utility to us.” Our Governor has just publicly stated that she has no use for facts if the facts stand in the way of her corporate backers’ agenda.

There could be no clearer proof that the legislature is putting the interests of their private prison pals ahead of kids, victims of the housing crisis, and the 99%.

Consider the following:

House Speaker Andy Tobin took in $5,990 in campaign contributions from individuals or groups associated with 6 different private prison corporations in 2009-2010 alone. Keep in mind, the maximum individual contribution in Arizona in 2010 was $410 (this year it went up to $430). The biggest spender was clearly GEO Group, whose lobbyists made 16 contributions worth $3,860. He also got a hefty donation (the maximum allowed) by the MTC Political Action Committee. MTC, you may recall, was responsible for the most spectacular prison break in recent memory, resulting in a two week multistate manhunt and the deaths of two people.

John Kavanagh, Chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee (which basically drafts the budget), is also on the take. In the 2010 election cycle, he took in campaign donations from six different individuals associated with private prison lobbying firms, most of them representing GEO Group. For more information, see our previous post on Kavanagh’s private prison “appropriations.”

And then there’s our Governor, who has distinguished the state of Arizona in so many ways, including her famous “senior moment” during a televised debate, wagging her bony finger at the President of the United States, and being the puppet of the private prison industry. As Beau Hodai reported for In These Times, the Governor’s campaign manager is Chuck Coughlin, whose consulting firm Highground lobbies for Corrections Corporation of America. Her previous Chief of Staff was Paul Senseman, himself a lobbyist for CCA before and after his stint in the Governor’s office. His wife is also a CCA lobbyist, and was actively lobbying for them while her husband was working for the Gov. The Arizona Republic has reported on the gobs of cash that CCA threw at the Governor and her pet projects during the 2010 election cycle.

Once you know who’s actually running the state government, it helps to explain the completely irrational behavior of the people who are supposed to be in charge. Why else would they choose to build prisons we don’t need instead of helping to restore funding for critical state functions that people depend on, like education, health care, and social services?

The Department of Corrections, State Auditor General, and even the Governor have admitted that our prison population is declining. In 2010 and 2011 we saw the lowest growth rates on record, and the trend is projected to continue. In other words, we don’t need more prisons. But private prison corporations need more contracts in order to pay their CEO’s, keep their shareholders happy, fund their lobbyists martinis, and reward their government stooges with fat campaign contributions.

Only catch is, our teeny-tiny surplus doesn’t quite cover the $60 million price tag for more prisons. Solution?: Steal the money from victims of the mortgage crisis! That’s right, the legislature is going to raid the money from the mortgage settlement and put it in the General Fund to pay for prison beds, even though the money is supposed to be used for “state foreclosure prevention programs, Attorney General Office costs and fees, and to remediate the effects of the foreclosure and housing crisis in Arizona.”

I suppose this applies if you consider one of the “effects of the foreclosure and housing crisis” is that the lobbyists for homebuilders have less cash to spend on legislators than the private prison lobbyists. Plus, more jobs for the prison construction firms and people who lost their homes can get ‘three hots and a cot’ in a private prison!

See, it all makes perfect sense once you understand where their priorities truly lie.