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Our View: Time to end state PIA’s monopoly

In these days of ultra-partisanship, we welcome any example of Democratic and Republican legislators working together. If the result is an improved climate for local businesses, all the better.

So it is with the efforts of state Sen. Sam Aanestad and Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro to level the playing field when it comes to selling perishable goods to Pelican Bay State Prison. Del Norte County’s Republican state senator and Democratic assemblyman are fighting the battle on two fronts.

First, they’ve helped to secure another waiver from the state’s Prison Industry Authority that allows a Crescent City company, Wayne Bolman Distributing, to continue transporting milk from Humboldt Creamery to Pelican Bay.

It is the only such waiver held by a Del Norte County business, and it wasn’t easy to come by. The PIA had announced it wasn’t going to extend the waiver for another year, and would instead transport milk to Pelican Bay from a prison much farther away than Humboldt Creamery. It took some serious arm-twisting by our legislators, along with county Supervisor Mike Sullivan and the Regional Council of Rural Counties, to get Bolman another waiver, and unless things change he’ll have to go through the ordeal again next year.

Why would the state choose a more expensive option when it is so cash-strapped? Because California law currently makes the PIA a monopoly— if a product or service can be provided by inmates, other prisons have to buy it unless the PIA grants a waiver.

Which brings us to the battle’s second front. Aanestad and Chesbro are teaming up on an effort to change the law so that prisons would be forced to buy perishable goods from private companies if they can be obtained at a lower cost than the PIA offers. That would mean Bolman would simply have to beat the PIA’s price rather than facing the annual uncertainty of obtaining a waiver.

It could also open the door for other local companies to do business with Pelican Bay — Rumiano Cheese used to, until it was muscled aside by the PIA. There are efforts afoot to bring a meat-processing plant to the county, and Del Norte would certainly be a more attractive destination for a processor if there was a reasonable chance of selling meat to the prison.

SB 1130 passed the Senate on a 26-6 vote and faces a hearing in the Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety later this month. If it clears that committee it heads for Appropriations and then, hopefully, the full Assembly.

When the state opened Pelican Bay more than 20 years ago, a lot was said about it supporting local businesses. That was before the PIA’s monopoly was established.

It’s not as if Del Norte’s economy hasn’t benefited immensely from Pelican Bay’s arrival. The prison is our biggest employer, and it’s hard to imagine where we’d be as a community without its 1,500-plus jobs. It’s also understandable that the state does what it can to provide gainful employment to inmates so that they learn trades and productivity that increase their chances of successful rehabilitation. But that doesn’t justify a monopoly that forces the state to pay more while freezing out local businesses.

Sen. Aanestad and Assemblyman Chesbro have it right, and it’s nice to see them working together for Del Norte.


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