PHOENIX -- The Ducey administration has begun its push for lawmakers to spend an additional $70 million dollars a year to house more inmates in private prisons.
On paper, the request from the Department of Corrections is for an immediate $5 million to start the process of seeking bids. Then there's another $52.4 million for operations in the first year.
But that is only for the first 1,000 new beds. Ducey wants to add another 2,000 on top of that.
The size of the request got the attention of members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who had a series of questions Tuesday for Charles Ryan, the state's prison chief.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, wanted to know why the prison population, after leveling off for several years, has taken a sudden jump. She specifically asked about the state's 1994 "Truth in Sentencing' Law that requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being released.
Michael Dolny, research director for the Department of Corrections, acknowledged that a big reason for the sudden increase is that inmates are staying behind bars longer.
And Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, questioned whether all of the more than 43,000 inmates in state care -- nearly 36,000 in state-run prisons and the balance in private facilities -- actually need to be behind bars. She asked whether alternatives to incarceration, like radio-monitored ankle bracelets, might be appropriate for some.
But those suggestions brought an angry reaction from Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who said that as far as he can tell, pretty much everyone who is locked up belong there.
He pointed out that a 1998 voter-approved law says that people charged with drug possession cannot be sent to prison but instead must be placed on probation and provided treatment. Ditto for second-time drug offenders.
"You have to work really hard to get into an Arizona prison if you're a non-violent drug offender,' Kavanagh said. He cited a study done on behalf of prosecutors which said sex offenders, repeat offenders and violent offenders make up 94 percent of the inmate population.
"There isn't this massive population of people that we can easily and safely move out of the prisons,' he said. "That is kind of a myth that may apply in other states, but not in Arizona.'
The funding request has drawn attention because it would bring the budget for the Department of Corrections up to $1.1 billion.
That's close to one dollar out of every eight the state is spending. And it comes as Ducey has proposed only a token increase in funding for public schools and a $75 million cut in state aid for universities.
That distinction did not go unnoticed by Ryan. But he said it's not his role to decide those priorities.
"Our responsibility is certainly that of public safety,' he told lawmakers.
"I'm empathetic to education and the other priorities you have to consider,' Ryan continued. "The people that go to prison are the people that the policymakers have determined are appropriate for prison.'
That still leaves the question of cost. Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, questioned whether there are places to cut.
"The perception of the public is that the prisoners are in prison and they are getting guitar lessons or they're lifting weights every day or they get to watch TV,' she said. "Those things are extra things that maybe could be looked at as places to cut.'
Ryan assured Ward that he runs an efficient system, pegging his per-inmate costs among the lower third of all state prison systems.
"We're very austere,' he said. "But, nevertheless, I understand your point and we will continue to strive to do better.'
Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson, questioned the need to contract for private prisons. She said she has been told that Maricopa County has about 2,000 available beds in its jail system, with more elsewhere around the state.
Ryan, however, said that's not a realistic long-term solution. Anyway, he said private prisons run Arizona anywhere from $47 to $67 a day per inmate; Ryan said Maricopa County wants more than $79 a day.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said even if that's the case, it makes more sense for Arizona to be giving its money to counties than private corporations. But Kavanagh said private prisons make sense because at the end of a 20-year contract the state owns the facility.
Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.