Commentary

Inmate numbers are dropping. So why is the Corrections budget growing?

Photo by Matthew Hendley | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

As the 2021 Legislative session drags into the summer, the state budgeting process has ground to a halt while Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican leaders try to force through a catastrophic flat tax — one which cities, towns and even other conservative Republicans oppose. 

Because Republicans failed to stop the passage of Proposition 208, the 2020 voter-approved measure to fully fund education, they now want a hasty rewrite of Arizona’s tax system to protect the wealthiest 1% of Arizona taxpayers. This radical flat tax proposal will reduce state revenues by almost $2 billion for this coming budget year alone. It will result in deep cuts to funding for our cities and towns. It will prevent future investments in education, workforce development, critical infrastructure, drought mitigation and human services. 

The flat tax will devastate our ability to come up with solutions for the many challenges we face, even as Arizona grows by the day.

But the real irony of the current situation is this: Even as Republicans attempt to force the passage of a measure to reduce state revenues, the proposed budget remains fiscally irresponsible in many places. For example, it allocates new funding for an unnecessary state border wall and increases the budget to incarcerate fewer people in a legally embattled state prison system — all while simultaneously removing an additional $1.9 billion in future revenue per year for the next 10 years. This is revenue we must have to fund vital public services and address the challenges and growing pains we know will occur. 

Nowhere is this grotesque juxtaposition of revenue cuts and spending increases more visible than in the budget for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry. This $1.2 billion dollar agency has operated in near-total secrecy when it comes to answering questions from the public, media and lawmakers — all while racking up lawsuits, court-ordered sanctions and alleged human rights violations. 

The proposed budget for the Corrections Department includes numerous unexplained cost shifts and increases. After seeing a reduction of incarcerated individuals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the department’s budget does not reflect corresponding spending reductions. 

Nor has it provided an explanation of its requests. It proposes $25 million to shut down the Florence state prison. That is not a typo. The governor, agency leaders and the Republicans who wrote the budget have provided no explanation of the cost, or why the closure — a measure that is supposed to save the state money — requires spending tens of millions of additional dollars. 

The corrections budget also includes $16 million for unspecified “contracted increases,” and another $25 million for private prison per diems. The department has ignored questions by legislators about these budget items, refused inquiries from journalists and failed to appear to answer questions from lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee. This is the same Department that has been successfully sued for its failure to provide Constitutionally adequate health care — and then sanctioned by a judge for failure to comply with court orders. 

A serious commitment to financial responsibility would be better served by an evaluation of prison spending, and the enactment of common-sense reforms to reduce overall spending — and not by continuing to write a blank check to a dysfunctional agency using money that will have to be taken from our schools, roads, healthcare and public safety budgets.  

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