Little, no chance prison closing, says area legislators
By Larry Blaskey
There is little to no chance that the Douglas State Prison is going to close.
That was the message echoed by all three District 25 state legislators during a town hall meeting sponsored by the City of Douglas Monday night.
Attending were Rep David Stevens and Patricia Fleming and Sen. Manny Alvarez.
More than 75 attended the one-and-a-half hour meeting. Many in attendance were from the local prison.
Along with the prison, the still unapproved budget dominated much of the discussion.
At the end of the meeting, all three legislators agreed that there would be almost no way the prison would close this year, and Stevens doesn’t expect it to close in the near future.
Douglas State Prison
“I don’t foresee any change occurring over the next few years,” Alvarez said.
“I don’t think early release will occur, it would take legislative action”
Stevens agreed with Alvarez’ assessment and went a bit further.
“I don’t see us ever getting to the point of privatization of the prison system, especially once all the details come out.”
“It will be much cheaper for the state to remain in the prison business rather than having a private company run the facilities,” Alvarez added.
The Douglas prison contributes $27 million in payroll annually in addition to providing 300 inmates that work for the city, county and other entities. If the city had to pay minimum wage for all of the prison work it receives, it would cost the city an additional $310,000 annually.
“This is the worst situation I have seen in my seven years at the Legislature,” Alvarez said.
“It is sad to see what is taking place. The rural communities are those getting hurt the worst.”
Of the 30 legislative districts, only seven are rural (not affiliated with Pima or Maricopa counties).
During her opening presentation, Fleming presented Budgeting 101 for the audience, a budgeting basics program to show where the legislature is currently at in the 2009-10 budget.
“The current deficit is $1.5 billion, and the reason behind the deficit include the National recession, increased demands on state services, Voter Required/Protected Funding and tax cuts.
“Challenges for the next session include the existing $1.5 billion deficit, possibility of additional cuts, a “No New Tax Pledge” from the Democratic party and questions concerning a possible 1 cent sales tax.”
The state budget is affecting Douglas and Cochise County in several areas:
• Revenue sharing funding from the state for the city will drop from $2.6 million in 2009, to $2.2 million in 2010 and finally to $1.7 million in 2011. That is a drop of more than a third in revenue in just two years.
• Special Session cuts: $144 million in soft capital, $155 million from DES. The soft capital will result in a $588,000 cut for the Douglas Unified School District.
• 15 percent cuts in all areas could impact the Douglas State Prison, and force Cochise Collee to increase its tuition to an additional $10 per credit hour.
David Stevens said a viable plan was presented at the begging of the session but was voted down by Democrats.
“The budget plan we presented in August would have balanced the budget without the most recent set of cuts,” Stevens said.
The budget plan included the
• Three-year 1 cent sales tax increase.
• Property tax freeze
• Three years state spending freeze.
“The plan would have opened the state up to attracting new business. When you compare our corporate tax structure it would have moved us from the 22 most competitive to seventh.
“We need to grow the state and the economic engine. We cannot continue just to cut. We need to find additional ways to general revenue,” Stevens said.
The state is having a problem even collecting the taxes that is due to it. Cuts in personnel in the Revenue Department has even made it more difficult to collect past due taxes.
1-cent sale tax
Some of the budget discussion during the meeting centered around the proposed 1 cent sales tax which would be limited to three years.
If approved, the tax would have created $600 million in new revenue each year, or about 40 percent of the current deficit.
“I understand that one cent doesn’t sound like much. The problem I had was the referral for the people to decide the issue. We were elected to make those types of decisions. I really had a problem with taking the vote away from the legislature. They need to retain their votes,” Fleming said.
Not a single Democrat voted for the sales tax increase.
What to do
If there are changes citizens want to be made, write, email, call those in power at the state level, all three legislators urged.
A complete listing of state leaders incommoding committee chairman can be found at www.azleg.gov.
“It is important to follow through because a lot of the legislators don’t even know where Douglas is. Your calls and letters will help them find out and know how important your issues are,” said Alvarez.