House bill 20-1019 is on the fast track to potentially being passed and the ramifications of the bill could be massive for Bent County.

HB20-1019, otherwise known as the Prison Population Reduction and Management bill could possibly get rid of private prisons in Colorado. Should it pass it could effectively put the 241 people currently employed by the Bent County Corrections Facility out of work and cause the county to lose 25% of its tax revenue.

The bill doesn’t explicitly state that it will shut down private prisons right away. However, the language of the bill could lead the state in that direction after they do a study. The study would be into the impact of private prisons in Colorado.

“There are a lot of portions of the bill that really don’t impact our community directly as much. The part that impacts our community that has raised a level of concern is that part of the bill calls for a study to examine how to eliminate the state's reliance on private prisons,” Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell said.

If the bill were to pass the county could be out of 25% of their property tax revenue and Bent County wouldn’t be the only county feeling a loss. Because MacDonnell said that Crowley County could lose up to 54% of their property tax revenue.

Another piece that would be heavily affected by this bill would be employment. MacDonnell said that there are roughly 500 people employed by both facilities. She added that it is Bent County's largest employer and Crowley County's second largest employer. So losing both facilities wouldn’t just have a large impact on families in the county themselves but potentially families across the whole Arkansas Valley.

The potential losses wouldn’t stop there because the prison is the highest wage payer in the county; it purchases its utilities from Las Animas and accounts for approximately a third of the city's entire sales. The school district could also feel some of the negative effects of the bill because, MacDonnell said, around 50 students have parents employed at the facility.

“If the facility went away, presuming that the worst happened, the facility went away, the folks moved away and the kids left, that’s $430,000 out of their budget and funding,” she said.

She said that other potential fallouts from the bill could affect the housing market and local business in the area.

“This is going to be devastating to two of Colorado’s poorest counties,” she said.

MacDonnell went on to say that the discussion from the sponsor of the bill Representative Leslie Herod and co-sponsor Representative Julie Gonzales has been around criminal justice and social justice, and that private industry shouldn’t be profiting off of human suffering. However, the commissioner's response is that there are other big social issues out there including that of the small poor counties who have a hard time attracting business and developing the economy.

This bill passing could be a huge blow to communities who have to rely on the business of private prisons because they have a hard time attracting other businesses.

“I think one of the things with the idea that private individuals or companies should not profit from someone else's incarceration does not make a whole lot of sense because every single business that sells things to the DOC state prisons also make a profit,” Bent County Commissioner Jean Sykes said.

The bill has already passed through the house and according to MacDonnell was debated on the floor for nearly two and a half hours. One of the people she said passionately argued the position of Bent and Crowley County was Representative Richard Holtorf.

Representative Holtorf, who represents both Bent and Crowley County, voted no on the bill, and Representative Bri Buentello who represents Otero County voted yes on the bill. The next step for HB20-1019 is the Senate.

On Monday Otero County commissioners approved $5,000 to be contributed to lobbying efforts for Bent County Corrections Facility after echoing many of the concerns shared by Bent County commissioners regarding employment and property taxes reliant upon the prisons in Bent and Crowley Counties.

On Wednesday Bent County transported residents to the capital to testify regarding their thoughts on the matter on the senate floor. The Senate Committee on Judiciary also referred the bill to Appropriations on Wednesday, according to the Colorado General Assembly.

jconlan@ljtdmail.com