Inmates Making Tags

The upcoming legislative session will be asked to allow Mississippi prisoners to do something they haven't done in more than 60 years, make auto tags. John H. Miller, Mississippi Prison Industries' chief executive, said the state could save money by using inmates to make the tags. However, he had no specific savings figure. State Tax Commission Chairman Ed Buelow is concerned with the idea, saying Mississippi Prison Industries has not been competitive in the bidding process. ``Private companies can get it done cheaper,'' said Buelow.

The State Tax Commission awarded Oregon-based Irwin-Hodson Co. a one-year contract to make the state's car and truck tags. Irwin-Hodson was the low bidder among six companies competing for the contract. The company said it could make Mississippi plates for $1.22 each, or $976,000 for the year. The second-lowest bidder was Mississippi Prison Industries at $1.24 per tag, or $991,520. Sen. Rob Smith of Richland, chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee, said he has worked for several years to get a bill passed that would allow Mississippi Prison Industries to make the tags. Mississippi Prison Industries, created by the Legislature in 1990, is a self-funded state agency that operates prison industries programs. Smith, a Democrat, said lawmakers passed a bill during former Gov. Kirk Fordice's first administration, but Fordice vetoed it. Legislation to give Mississippi Prison Industries the state's tag-making business passed the Senate in the last session but died in the House Ways and Means Committee. ``We will try again in this upcoming legislative session,'' Smith said Friday.

Smith said it made sense for Mississippi Prison Industries to make license plates because it would put inmates to work, help taxpayers and help provide revenue for prison industry programs. Also, it would be just as cost effective as private enterprise, he said. Miller said Prison Industries would provide jobs to 35 prisoners if it got the contract. The contract to supply newly designed tags that will last for five years will be up for renewal in the spring. Buelow said a concern he has if the contract goes to Prison Industries is ``what happens if they don't perform. Counties aren't going to come after Prisons Industries; they're going to come after the state Tax Commission.'' Under Smith's bill, the state License Tag Commission would award the contract for the purchase of license tags to the nonprofit corporation.

The commission would be authorized to renegotiate any contract entered into for the purchase of license tags in order to obtain any other additional tags, according to the bill.