Kentucky House and Senate budget negotiators decided Monday not to fund private prisons and wrestled over a problem-filled program to bring high speed-internet to the state that one legislator said reminded him of Tony Soprano.
In the second day of their negotiations to try to reach an agreement on a two-year spending plan for the state, House and Senate conferees agreed not to pursue private prisons as the state faces a shortage of inmate beds.
Justice Secretary John Tilley recently warned that the state’s prison system probably would run of out space by May 2019 if changes aren’t made.
Last November, state officials signed a contract with Tennessee-based CoreCivic to house about 800 inmates at the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville as the state’s prison population surged to more than 24,600.
The House earlier this month approved a budget that would give the state permission to allocate money for two more private prisons, but the Senate stripped the funding.
Christian County Jailer Brad Boyd, president of the Kentucky Jailers’ Association, told the budget conference Monday that he opposed privatization and that housing inmates in county jails is cheaper than housing them in private prison.
The state pays about $58 a day to house an inmate in a private prison, while the cost to house an inmate in a local jail is $31.34.
Local jails are overcrowded, but Boyd said at least six counties have opened or plan to open new jails or expand existing ones in the next few years to increase capacity by more than 1,700 beds.
He also said the state has 495 empty beds at various restrictive custody centers, which house low-level inmates that often work in the community.
A few hours after Boyd’s presentation, the budget conference committee voted not to pursue additional private prisons.
No decision was made on what to do about state funding for KentuckyWired, a plan initiated in 2015 by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset to build a publicly owned broadband network to bring high-speed internet to Kentucky, especially to its poorest areas.
It was supposed to take a year to finish but only about 700 miles of the 3,000-mile network of fiber optic cables have been built, according to Gov. Matt Bevin’s Cabinet Secretary, Scott Brinkman, and Phillip Brown, executive director of the Kentucky Communications Network Authority.
Brown said construction has been hampered by delays ranging from weather to getting permission to hang cables onto existing telephone poles.
Several legislators Monday raised questions about the program, which is seeking $66 million in the budget plan to meet its contractual obligations and $110 million in bonding authority to reimburse companies for their losses during the project delays.
State officials say ending the project might result in a loss of $500 million for the state.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, asked if the state should be in the business of doing something the private sector should be doing. He called it “a mess from the previous administration” and said, “We could use the money to fill holes in a lot of other areas.”
Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, said the problems with KentuckyWired reminded him of the problems TV mobster Tony Soprano encountered in the hit TV show, “The Sopranos.”
Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said the state cannot now afford not to finish the project, which he called “a bipartisan effort.”
Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, said he, too, thinks the project should move forward.
Another weighty topic Monday for the budget conference committee was the state employees’ health insurance plan, but no decision was made on it.
The House proposed taking $481 million from the plan while the Senate proposed taking $310 million.
Lawmakers hope to come up with an agreement on the state spending plan in time so as not to lose their ability to override any vetoes from the governor. They are to continue their budget negotiations Tuesday upon adjournment of the House and Senate.