A bill clearing the way for a 1,000-bed private prison in Whittier passed the House on Monday.
Representatives voted 24-14 for the measure, which calls for the state to contract with the city of Whittier, which would contract with Cornell Companies Inc. to build and operate the prison. Whittier is on Prince William Sound, southeast of Anchorage.
House Bill 498 also would expand a 92-bed state prison in Bethel by 96 beds.
Proponents say a Whittier facility will be cheaper than building new state prisons and will bring Alaska prisoners housed in an Arizona private prison back to the state.
"What we're doing here is certainly bringing folks home," said Rep. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican. "We are giving a struggling community that has turned the corner and wants to have a new future a chance to do it."
Opponents said the prison contractor was not chosen through a truly competitive process.
"I've seen this bill in essentially four different forms. There's been different locations and different justifications each time," said Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat. "What stays the same every single time I see this is it's going to the same corporation, with the same powerful, influential people pushing it."
Cornell Companies was to be the contractor in previous proposals for private prisons in Delta Junction and Kenai.
Previous private prison efforts were derailed by community opposition. But Ben Butler, the mayor of Whittier, said most of Whittier's 182 residents have signed a petition supporting the prison.
Rep. Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican, said the state comes out ahead by keeping the prisoners in Arizona at $52 a day, rather than housing them in Whittier at the $89-$91 a day called for in the bill.
But Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican, said Whittier is cheaper than the new public jail in Anchorage, which has an operating cost of $138 per prisoner per day.
The measure now goes to the Senate.
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