ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski has signed a bill authorizing an expansion of the state's prisons, but only after vetoing funds for the buildout from this year's budget.
Murkowski signed the measure Thursday, saying the expansion is necessary for Alaska's crowded prisons. Earlier this week, he vetoed a $260,000 line item to hire three project managers to plan and construct the facilities.
The state could risk lowering its bond rating by taking on debt without a long-term fiscal plan, he said.
"It's a very high priority, but the recognition that issuing bonds now could jeopardize our credit rating is something we need to take very seriously," Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said Friday.
The new law authorizes the Department of Corrections to enter into agreements with municipalities for new or expanded prison facilities in Fairbanks, Bethel, Anchorage, Seward, Whittier, Dillingham, Kodiak and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
It provides for a new prison in the Mat-Su Borough that would house between 1,200 and 2,251 prisoners.
The author of the Senate bill, Republican Sen. Lyda Green of Wasilla, said she did not agree with Murkowski that a bond issue would affect the state's credit rating.
"It will not drop. There's no reason for it to drop," Green said. "We have a very low debt ratio, we're probably the most diligent of the states in maintaining curbs on additional spending."
She said Murkowski may be playing politics with the prison measure, tying it to the failure of his proposal to use the state's permanent fund as part of a long-term fiscal solution.
The lack of funding may not delay planning the expansion, she said. Some of the work can be done by existing staff members and the state can seek funding from an outside entity, she said.
"The veto of the funding language is probably not as critical as it appears," Green said. "There are other ways of going about to get this study created."
Don Stolworthy, the Department of Corrections' deputy commissioner of operations, said the state's prisons were at 98 percent capacity, and the prison population typically sees growth of 1 percent to 2 percent per year.
Because of the crowding, Alaska spends about $14 million per year to house prisoners in Arizona, Stolworthy said. There were 683 Alaska prisoners in Arizona on Friday.
Until Alaska expands its own facilities, prisoners will continue to be shipped out of state, Stolworthy said. But that still does not alleviate in-state crowding of prisoners awaiting trial.
"The contract with the Arizona facility will be our primary relief valve on the system, but that does nothing to alleviate the pressure from pretrial and sentencing prisoners," Stolworthy said.
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