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Bob Odell
State Senator
District 8


May 16, 2011

Senator Odell is Chairman of  the Ways and Means Committee; Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Vice Chairman of the Finance Committee; Vice Chairman of the State Parks Advisory Council; and member of the  Capital Budget Committee.

Senate District 8 towns: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.

The original legislation could not have been more reasonable. House Bill 635 would require the Governor to consolidate some government functions. No controversy there but an amendment from Finance Chair, Senator Chuck Morse (Salem), to allow the Corrections Commissioner to move up to 600 prisoners to private or public facilities out-of-state to save $10 million over the next two years drew critics to a public hearing Thursday afternoon.

Money is the issue. The Department of Corrections, in both the Governor’s version of the budget and the House’s budget, would get a large increase in its budget while all other departments get less money than in the current biennium. The Senate Finance Committee has pleaded with the Commissioner, William Wrenn, to offer some options to reduce spending. His early response was to close the Berlin prison. That is not something the Senate is interested in.

The Governor has talked about privatizing the entire prison system by building a large facility to serve all three northern New England states and he is thought to be about to put out a "request for a proposal" to see what offers New Hampshire could attract. Senator Morse’s proposal, simply letting the Commissioner outsource up to 600 prisoners if he chose to do it to reduce spending, should not have been so controversial.

More than half the states send prisoners to private facilities, and one in five federal prisoners go to private prisons. No state has completely privatized its system but three states send more than a third of their prisoners to private facilities.

It is a dollar and sense issue in part. The commonly used number is $63 per day per prisoner. The state figure used in the hearing on Thursday was closer to $90 per day.

There is no question that the details of any outsourcing arrangement are key to a full evaluation of the opportunity. But to reject the idea out of hand is to be blind to the fact that the budget of the corrections department is on a one-way trajectory … up and up … while we drastically reduce budgets of other departments that provide critical services to our citizens.

The hearing drew corrections officers who laid into the corrections department administration including Commissioner Wrenn. They criticized the top-heavy and expensive management structure and a disconnect between managers and those who work "behind the wall." The testimony suggests that there is at minimum a serious morale issue with some of the front line employees. And from that testimony, mail and email, a few corrections officers have provided ideas on how to improve operations at the prisons and save money.

The most compelling testimony came from several mothers and one father who regularly see their loved ones during twice weekly visitations at the Concord prison. They do not want to see their sons sent out-of-state. The father, a prominent community and business leader, spoke eloquently about his routine of visiting his son. As hard as it is to have a son in prison, he said that prison was where his son needed to go and that the prison experience has been very positive.

An 80-year-old woman told of visiting her son every week for fifteen years except for a brief time when her husband’s work took them to Virginia. Her son is serving 20 years. She worries that if her son were sent to a facility some distance away that she would never see him again.

In the end, the language allowing the commissioner to send prisoners to private facilities will be substituted with the creation of a study commission to look into the subject. On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee cut the Department of Corrections budget by $10 million. That is still a 2 percent increase over this year’s budget. Senator Morse summed up the committee’s thinking: "The reality is, that department can’t continue to grow and grow and grow" (its costs).

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Some days there are scheduling conflicts with two or three appointments at the same time. That happened last Tuesday when I needed to chair the Ways and Means Committee on the first floor of the State House while upstairs in the Governor and Council Chambers on the second floor the 2011 Joseph D. Vaughan Awards were being presented. I did have a chance to stop by and congratulate the winner for Sullivan County, Eugene Des Jardins.

Eugene is a volunteer for the Congress for Claremont Senior Citizens helping out with fund-raising, organizing events and feeding hungry seniors. His years of service to others is recognized by his selection as a 2011 Vaughan Award recipient. Congratulations to Eugene for his award and many thanks for all he does for other seniors.

Since 1962, the Vaughan Awards are presented each year to individuals or couples, over age 60, who have shown outstanding leadership or demonstrated meritorious achievement as a volunteer, on behalf of the older citizens in New Hampshire. Easy to see why Eugene was chosen for this special recognition.

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The best headline of the week: "NH still most livable in US." New Hampshire was selected for the fifth year in a row as the "Most Livable State" in the country by CQ, a publishing and research company. The CQ report noted "New Hampshire excels in a number of important quality of life measures." We all know that.

 

 

Bob Odell
State Senator
New Hampshire State House
107 North Main Street
Concord, NH 03301-4951

Telephone:  603-271-6733
Email:  rpojr@aol.com

 

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