The head of Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division is defending his use of prison labor at the state’s liquor warehouse in Ankeny. But lawmakers are more concerned about whether Iowa should be in the liquor business at all. Inmates at the women’s prison in Mitchellville took over the work at a state warehouse last month. Administrator Lynn Walding says critics concerns about long hours and cold dinners were quickly addressed, and he says there’s now a waiting list of inmates who want jobs at the Ankeny warehouse.Walking calls it a good operation, “not a gulag” or prison camp as some have suggested. Walding says using prison labor will save the state a million- and-a-half dollars over the next two years. He says it’s also good for the inmates because it provides them a small income and skills to fall back on when they’re released from prison. But the chair of the legislative committee reviewing the division’s operations says she’s satisfied the inmates are not being exploited. Marion republican Mary Lundby has heard the concerns over inmates being paid less than 40-cents an hour. She says they’re no more exploited, she says, than others working at the capitol and other locations, noting it’s a standard rate for prison workers and they do get health coverage. She adds that learning a work skill for when they leave prison could be beneficial. Senator Lundby says she’s more interested in exploring the whether or not the state should even be involved in selling liquor. Iowa is one of 18 states that controls liquor distribution, by purchasing alcohol directly from the manufacturer and then selling it to Iowa stores at a 50 percent markup. Lundby calls it “kind of a dinosaur” for states to be in the liquor business, though she hastened to add that Walding’s department is doing a very good job. Administrator Walding says his division generates good revenue for the state and limits alcohol promotions. But at least one Iowa warehousing company is complaining about the state stealing business from the private sector. StanPoe is the vice president of Crystal Distribution Services in Waterloo. He says he’s not interested in competing against the state government for jobs “clearly served best by private industry,” as he says a private company doing the job would reinvest in the business, pay taxes, and create jobs for Iowans. Poe says Crystal Distribution will bid on a contract to run the state’s warehouse later this fall. But he says it’s nearly impossible for his company to compete with the state system of using inmate labor. Democratic senator Bob Dvorsky of Coralville says if lawmakers are asked to get the state out of the liquor business, he’d most likely oppose that.He calls the history of privatization in Iowa “dismal” — saying it cost 40-percent more to have companies provide medical services to the prisons and service was worse, the maintenance at rest stops on the Interstate was inadequate, and services at the veterans home in Marshalltown also was transferred back to state employees. Senator Dvorsky says too often the contracts are awarded to out-of-state companies that pay low wages. And he says in this case the Alcoholic Beverages Division actually generates revenue for the state – so why would they give that up.
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