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Senate approves toned-down prison construction bill

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley’s priority legislation for the 2017 legislative session has made it through the Alabama Senate, but only an outline of the original plan remains in place.

The Senate on Thursday passed a toned-down version of Bentley’s Prison Transformation Initiative — an ambitious, albeit controversial plan to reform the landscape of Alabama correctional facilities by consolidating almost all of the men’s prisons into three “mega-prisons.”

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The original plan, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward in the Senate, called for building four new prisons at a cost of $800 million. Three of the prisons would have held 4,000 male offenders a piece, and one would have held 1,200 women. Their location had not been decided.

A bond would have been issued to cover the costs.

The first iteration of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative had strong support among the upper echelons of the Alabama Legislature. But the plan faced fierce opposition from rank-and-file members of the Legislature, who raised concerns over bidding, transparency, cost and the location of the new prisons.

The final version of the bill authorizing Bentley’s plan passed by the Senate Thursday looks little like the original plan but keeps the basic outline of three new mega-prisons for men. It scraps the new female facility. Bentley seemed at ease with the changes in a statement released Thursday afternoon from his office.

“I understand this bill is a work in progress and my ultimate goal remains the same, and that is to have safe and modern facilities that solve the persistent overcrowding of our prisons that will protect our law enforcement officers and inmates, as well prepare the inmates to successfully transition back into our communities,” Bentley said. “If we are to truly transform the person, we must first transform the system.”

Instead of four new prisons, the legislation passed will only authorize three new men’s prisons.

And instead of an $800 million bond issued by the State, the new legislation only authorizes the Department of Corrections through a bond authority to take $325 million in bonds for one new prison and renovations of existing facilities.

But ADOC can only take out the bond if they find two localities go first.

Under the legislation passed Thursday, the first two prisons will have to be financed by county or local authorities. The localities must establish their own bonding authorities and borrow up to $225 million to build the prisons, which would then be leased back to the State.

The Department of Corrections would first have the authorize the bonds and the plans before any construction began. The localities would have to meet State standards to be considered.

The local requirement first began as a local option.

In a compromise plan crafted last week, localities were allowed to build their own prisons, but they weren’t required to go first. Several legislators, including Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Bay Minette, and Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, asked for the local option to assuage concerns in their districts over the possible loss of jobs from prison consolidation.

The senators wanted to guarantee that Escambia and Elmore Counties would be able to compete for the new mega-prisons to replace any lost jobs. Escambia and Elmore Counties alone are home to seven of Alabama’s 16 major correctional facilities — not counting work-release and community work centers in the counties.

Officials from both counties have said they would be interested in supporting the new correctional facilities, but many other counties may not have the resources to compete for the new prisons.

A local official from Barbour County, Alabama, home to two major correctional facilities, who spoke with APR on background, said their county wouldn’t be able to compete because it couldn’t support such a large bond issue.

ADOC’s initial proposal for the APTI would have consolidated 14 of Alabama’s 16 major correctional facilities into the four new prisons. With the new plan, it is unclear how many facilities will be closed.

The plan got several hours of heavy debate on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, but 23 senators eventually voted yes on the measure. Now it will head to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The legislation split the parties with 19 Republicans and four Democrats voting in favor, while seven Republicans, three Democrats and an independent voted against it, citing concerns over the still-looming costs.

The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative was conceived by ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn and was intended to alleviate several major problems in Alabama’s prisons: increasing costs, dangerous overcrowding and understaffing.

By consolidating the prisons into three mega-facilities, the State could save $50 million a year — enough to finance the bond payments — and wouldn’t need as many guards, ADOC officials have said.

“The State prison system is close to exploding the state budget,” Ward said. “We have numerous prisons that were built before the Vietnam War and some pre-date World War Two. The upkeep alone for these facilities is a bleeding hole in our budgets.”

Though the plan is an attempt to address overcrowding and systemic understaffing problems, it doesn’t completely alleviate them. The plan would only reduce overcrowding from about 175 percent capacity to a little more than 125 percent capacity over the next five years —and only if all three prisons are built.

Alabama’s prisons currently house about 23,000 inmates in a system built mostly in the 1970s for a max of 13,000 inmates, according to the most recent ADOC statistical reports. Bentley’s plan would have only increased capacity to 16,000 inmates if the planned number of existing prisons were closed.

The final version passed Thursday would only bump capacity by about 2,000. Depending on the size of the new prisons and how many are built, capacity could be increased by an even smaller percentage.

The State prison population has decreased from about 27,000 after the Legislature passed sentencing reform measures in 2013. The new prisons, combined with sentencing reform, could solve the overcrowding problem over time, proponents have said.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal organization currently carrying several lawsuits against Alabama over health care access in its prisons, said the plan would not solve problems of violence, understaffing and lack of adequate health care.

“We all agree that many facilities need renovating, and in some cases replacing, but we shouldn’t move forward with an expensive construction project without a comprehensive strategy to overhaul the prison system and the criminal justice policies that helped create this crisis,” said Ebony Howard, an SPLC associate legal director.

Ward has said he favors an “all of the above” approach, which could include more sentencing reform.

“You’ll never be able to build your way out,” Ward said. “What this does do, combined with sentencing reform, is it gets you to the 137 percent capacity. That would be the steepest decline without endangering public safety of anybody in the country.”

The Federal Judiciary has shown increasing impatience with Alabama’s prison system. In recent years, conditions at Tutwiler Prison were so bad that a Federal court ruled them unconstitutional and ordered improvements.

But the plan passed Thursday cut out a new Tutwiler. Instead, it allows for some of the bond capital to be used for renovations at the existing Tutwiler. Tutwiler was originally Bentley’s first priority, citing the court cases against it, but Ward said it was the first to go because the State wouldn’t save any money from building a new one.

In 2015, the State settled a lawsuit by the US Department of Justice against conditions at Tutwiler. As part of the agreement, ADOC put millions into renovations at Tutwiler, which could continue under this new plan.

“There was really no savings with doing a new women’s prison,” Ward said last week. “What we were closing down would not generate enough in savings to do another.”

ADOC has said the consolidation using the “mega prisons” would reduce staffing costs by about $17 million a year, overtime payments by $21 million a year and healthcare delivery by $10 million, according to the two independent studies the department commissioned.

The exact savings all depend on the size of the new prisons built by the localities — if they’re built at all.


Email Chip Brownlee at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

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Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

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Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

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Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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Senate approves toned-down prison construction bill

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 7 min
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