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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Governor Rejects Private Prison Bailout Offer

The Montana Capitol in Helena.
Mike Albans
Montana Capitol, Helena.

Governor Steve Bullock has rejected a budget bailout offer from the state’s only private prison in exchange for a revised and extended contract to house Montana’s inmates.

The state’s contract with the private prison in Shelby, run by the Tennessee based company CoreCivic, is set to expire in June of 2019.

Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, told press Thursday that negotiations between the administration and the owners of the prison, at least for now, are at a stalemate.

“You know at this point I hope they come back to us with a reasonable offer, there are certainly other private prison operators who might be interested,” Villa said.

During the political wrangling of the special session last November, Republicans wanted to trade the state renewing its contract with CoreCivic in exchange for the company releasing $30 million in state money it’s been holding.

That money was set aside for the state to use to buy the prison from CoreCivic.

But Republicans say they want to leave the prison in the hands of private industry, so the $30 million should instead be used in a negotiated bailout.

The governor’s office says the state can get by without the $30 million, and won’t have to make additional cuts if it doesn’t strike a deal with the prison.

Republican Senator Llew Jones agrees that the state won’t go broke without the $30 million.

“The system cashflowed without it, but it does make things very very tight,” Jones said.

He says that while the prison deal was not an absolute must-have to keep state finances afloat, it does mean that money from the potential deal won’t be available to put money back into state agencies, like the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Republicans wanted the new prison contract to put 15 million dollars into the state’s fire fund, and for the governor to use the rest of the money, at least another 15 million, to backfill cuts in essential government services.

“And so it does make a difference to critical areas in the budget. And it is not that we are not getting by without them, there is just a lot of pain in the land. I would guess that a lot of health and human services meetings, they might feel the pain is somewhat excessive,” Jones said.

When Jones and other Republicans proposed during the special session that the state make a deal with CoreCivic, Democrats rejected the notion. But Republicans used their majority in the House and Senate to handcuffed the overall budget fix to negotiations with the private prison.

CoreCivic declined an interview request from MTPR Thursday. In an email, the company said it is, “committed to assisting the State during its budget difficulties.”

A spokesperson for CoreCivic said the company’s final offer this week included a one-time payment to the state of $35.7 million dollars, increasing their officer wages by over 11 percent, expanding sex offender and vocational education programs, and increasing the daily fee the state must pay the prison by just over 4 percent.

Dan Villa, with Bullock’s office, said the state was willing to pay for additional education for prisoners, and training programs for prison staff, but he says CoreCivic wanted too high an increase on the daily fees for housing state prisoners.

“We can’t just let 500 bad guys going roaming around the streets of Montana, so we will work toward a solution, but frankly I think the easiest approach is to wait for them to bring an offer that is fair to every Montanan,” Villa said.

A spokesperson from CoreCivic said the company believes there is a way to find common ground.

Negotiations are at an impasse for now. The state’s contract with CoreCivic is set to expire in June of 2019.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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