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April 11, 2023

A Senate committee on Tuesday voted to scrap plans to send 120 incarcerated Montanans to a private prison in Arizona. 

The amendment to the Legislature’s main spending proposal from Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, removed almost $8 million in funding over the next biennium for the state Department of Corrections to secure bed space from private prison giant CoreCivic at one of its Arizona facilities. CoreCivic has a current contract with the state to operate the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby.

Boldman and supporters of her amendment on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee said the state can alleviate crowding in the prison system without having to contract with CoreCivic, pointing to a series of measures lawmakers are considering this session to increase bed space both in community corrections — programs like pre-release centers that house people on probation or parole — and at the state prison in Deer Lodge. 

“We know we’re freeing up a significant amount of beds — easily 100-plus — and I don’t think we need these beds in Arizona,” Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, told the committee Tuesday.

The $8 million appropriation was put into House Bill 2 last month through an amendment from Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, who presented it as a temporary but immediate solution to capacity issues in the prison system. More than 250 people are held in county jails in Montana awaiting placement in either the state prison or a community correctional facility due to the lack of available bed space, according to the Montana Department of Corrections. 

But Fitzpatrick’s amendment was controversial with critics pointing to CoreCivic’s marbled reputation and arguing that separating inmates from their home state and communities would increase recidivism.

Although it had the support of Billings Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, the chair of the budget subcommittee focused on corrections and other aspects of the criminal legal system, the state Department of Corrections distanced itself from the idea. When Mercer floated the idea of sending Montana inmates to Arizona at a subcommittee meeting in February, DOC director Brian Gootkin said the department preferred to first look at in-state solutions. Nevertheless, Mercer and Fitzpatrick pushed for the idea and got the votes to attach the funding to the budget in the House Appropriations Committee last month — a somewhat irregular move, as the budget subcommittee in charge of DOC funding hadn’t voted to approve the money. 

HB 2 then passed the House and landed in the Senate, giving the upper chamber the opportunity to amend the House’s work. 

There are several other options for adding bed space in Montana, Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, who sits on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and was opposed to the CoreCivic arrangement, told Capitolized Tuesday. HB 2 already has funding for 51 community corrections beds. And Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billingshas a bill awaiting signature by the governor that would allow the DOC to send inmates to pre-release centers more quickly, Lynch said. Additionally, the Legislature’s long-range infrastructure funding vehicle, House Bill 5, has money for a variety of projects designed to increase bed space, including renovations at the state prison. 

“All those pieces in tandem are enough for [Corrections] to be able to manage this,” Lynch said. 

McGillvray said Tuesday he spoke with the governor’s budget office and was assured that if the state really did need the CoreCivic beds, the Corrections Department could ask for the money back through a supplemental appropriations bill. Boldman’s amendment ultimately passed, 14-5. The Senate can also further amend HB 2 on the floor.

Senate Finance and Claims Committee Chair John Esp, R-Big Timber, was among the “no” votes, arguing that the Legislature would just end up approving the funding anyway. 

“I don’t want to do something when we know it’s going to cause a supplemental,” he said.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Programming Note

Given the Easter-shortened week and some staff time-off coming up this weekend, there will be no Capitolized on Friday, April 14. We’ll be back to normal, starting next Tuesday, April 18. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Bill Report

House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, passed a final vote on the Senate floor Tuesday, 37-13. The bill would increase the amount of state funding available to public school districts to help support STEM and trade-based education efforts. HB 257 asks for $4 million per year for the program and establishes a process for deferring district applications to future years once that funding is spoken for. The bill also directs districts to ensure that 75% of the annual funding they receive goes toward covering out-of-pocket expenses for students such as exams, tuition payments for dual credit courses or fees associated with work-based learning opportunities. HB 257 now heads to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk for consideration.

House Bill 625, sponsored by Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, was one of multiple Republican abortion-related measures the Senate endorsed Tuesday. HB 625 is a proposal similar to a ballot measure that failed in 2022, the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. The bill, like the initiative, would require medical providers to apply life-sustaining efforts to newborns born after an induced abortion, natural labor or cesarean section — something critics say doctors already have to do under the law. HB 625 passed, 31-19, with three Republicans voting with all Democrats against the bill. The Senate on Tuesday also passed House Bill 575, which would generally ban abortions after 24 weeks, 30-20. 

Vote Viz

Three Senate Republicans broke with their party on House Bill 625, one of multiple abortion-related bills the upper chamber heard Tuesday. The bill, which would require life-sustaining medical care for newborns, including those diagnosed with fatal health conditions, ultimately passed, 31-19. 

Heard in the Halls

“DOJ asked for 37 new [full-time employees], which was a significant ask. Now we’ve given them 21. Now we’re adding three more. It’s up to this committee, but ultimately we’re having one of the largest increases in spending in the state of Montana’s history. We want to give almost everything that people ask for, because everything is a good thing, everything is an important thing, everything has value and merit. But when I talked to the AG, the top two priorities that he had, this wasn’t on it.”

Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, explaining his opposition to a budget amendment that would fund three new trainers at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.

On Background

The Legislature’s plan to transfer 120 inmates to Arizona: For more on the Legislature’s dead-ish plan to send 120 Montana inmates to a private prison in Arizona, read this previous Capitolized item. (MTFP)

How Montana’s LR-131 ‘Born-Alive’ referendum failed: LR-131, better known as the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, failed at the ballot box in 2022 by six points. For more on that initiative, see this story from Montana Free Press. (MTFP)