DALLAS — Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry will present an executive budget for fiscal 2009 at today’s opening of the 51st Legislature that does not include a bond package for expansion of the state’s crowded prison system.
Henry said the budget would include several bond proposals, but not one for the Department of Corrections.
Paul Sund, director of communications for the governor, said Henry would propose a bond package to finance additional beds and facilities for the juvenile justice system. He declined to provide more specifics before the governor unveils the executive budget during an address to the Legislature at noon.
Speaking to journalists last week at a legislative forum sponsored by the Associated Press, Henry said the executive budget would include bond issues designed to finance improvements and upgrades to the state’s infrastructure. He did not discuss details, such as the number of bond proposals or the dollar amounts involved.
“The state of Oklahoma is not investing enough in itself,” Henry said at the forum.
However, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said Friday that a bond package that would add to the state’s prison capacity could be developed before the Legislature recesses on May 30.
“I don’t think it is off the table at all,” he said. “There are some questions about how an expansion of the prison system is to be financed. Everybody agrees we should do something, but it might be adding to the state prison system, more reliance on private prisons, or a combination of the two.”
An audit of the Department of Corrections, authorized by the 2007 Legislature at a cost of $844,000 and released in early January, said the department operates efficiently but found “uniform evidence of serious deterioration to DOC’s physical plant and infrastructure. The existing situation at some facilities places the health and safety of staff and inmates alike at risk.”
Meacham said the report by Florida-based MGT of America Inc. will make it easier to get an expansion of prison capacity through the Legislature. The House is controlled by the Republicans, 57 to 44, and the Senate is evenly split, with 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats. Henry is a Democrat.
“Basically, the audit told us what we already knew,” Meacham said. “It should give some credibility to arguments for prison expansion and help convince those legislators not aware of the seriousness of the situation.”
Corrections director Justin Jones has submitted a proposed budget for fiscal 2009 to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary that asks for $573 million, some $90 million more than in fiscal 2008.
Jones’ proposed budget includes a $327 million bond package that would add 3,818 new beds to the prison system, including 1,568 maximum-security slots at the main state penitentiary in McAlester.
Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, filed a bill with several provisions similar to Jones’ proposal that would authorize the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority to issue $310 million of 25-year lease revenue bonds to finance additions totaling more than 4,000 beds at medium- and maximum-security installations across the state.
Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, co-chairman of the judiciary appropriations subcommittee, said the audit paves the way for improvements to the prison system.
“It is no secret that in previous years Oklahoma’s corrections system has faced tough times with prison overcrowding and staff shortages,” he said. “We intend to use the recently released independent audit as a roadmap to ensure we are making necessary changes and wise investments to help keep all our citizens safe.”
The latest available prisoner count totals 25,056 inmates in the system as of Nov. 30, 2007, which is essentially 100% of capacity. The report from the Corrections Department shows 1,688 maximum-security prisoners in facilities with a capacity of 1,884, a total of 6,025 medium-security inmates in facilities designed for 6,070, and 7,724 minimum-security prisoners in facilities designed for 7,869.
Oklahoma also has 6,500 prisoners in private correctional facilities within the state.