County officials and state legislators agree transferring hundreds of state prisoners to county jails will not solve the state’s budgetary woes.
What once was touted as a plan to save the state is no longer a viable option because of the extra burden it would put on cash-strapped counties.
In a meeting at the state Capitol Jan. 5, county supervisors, state senators and officials discussed the budget.
Gila County Supervisors Tommie Martin, Michael Pastor and Shirley Dawson met with Senators Sylvia Allen and Don Shooter, who is chair of the senate appropriations committee. All agreed a transfer of state prisoners to county jails would create more problems than it clears up.
While legislators agreed to cancel the prison transfer, other budget issues bogging down counties will remain in place.
“What Tommie and I walked away with is a ‘no’ to prison transfers, but the mandated payments and withholding of Highway User Revenue Funds (HURF) funds is still up in the air,” said John Nelson, Gila County deputy manager.
For three years, state legislators have turned to the counties to help balance the state’s budget, implementing four plans.
The first mandates contributions from the five largest counties in the state — a plan that has brought $130 million into the state’s budget since 2008.
Second, the state diverted $73 million in HURF and then shifted $66 million of various program costs onto counties.
Finally, the state proposed transferring state prisoners to county jails.
County jail officials balked at the idea.
They argued jails do not have the capacity to house long-term prisoners and are not equipped with the security to handle those type of offenders.
Additionally, the cost of housing more prisoners would decimate county coffers, officials said.
Gov. Jan Brewer said she had done away with the idea of prisoner transfers from the budget at the fall County Supervisors Association meeting.
But during a meeting last week, county officials finally received confirmation from state legislators that the transfer program was stopped.
Last week’s meeting represented one of the first times Gila County and state officials have discussed budget issues face-to-face.
Senator Allen arranged the meeting, giving county officials the opportunity to discuss financial issues with Shooter, said Nelson.
Pastor touted the meeting as a success.
“I think we got several of our points across and he got some of his across to us,” he said.
County officials had hoped to see a reverse in mandatory contributions and HURF withholdings, but legislators made it clear there was a $3 billion deficit to fill.
Also at the meeting, county officials learned state tax revenues are on the rise.
Legislators project a $3 million surplus this year, said Nelson.
Martin said there should be more meetings like this one.
As she left, she told Shooter stopgap measures may solve problems short term, but it is time for real solutions. “In good times, the state runs amok with ways to spend their wealth. In bad times, they pick the pockets of the counties,” she said. “No one has a cushion.”