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APR breaks it down: The $845 million plan for new prisons expected in the House

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — A House prison construction plan in the works is expected to include the provisions that would allow for the construction of a new women’s prison and three regional men’s facilities at a cost of up to $845 million.

The revamped House plan will come as lawmakers stare down the end of the 2017 Legislative Session, set to close with only five legislative days to go and several priorities left unfinished. Lawmakers are making a final sprint to get a prison reform plan through.

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The plan, dubbed the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, was conceived by the Alabama Department of Corrections as a brick-and-mortar solution to severe overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons.

“I know we have a lot of opponents here, and I respect them, but doing nothing is not an option,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward. “No one can tell me that the way we treat those prisoners is constitutional. Our dogs get better treatment than them.”

The House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing Tuesday on Ward’s Senate bill, which would authorize the construction of three new regional men’s prisons. Each would have a capacity of about 4,000 inmates a piece.

The Senate passed a compromise version of the bill in March, but the House committee and the full House still have to pass the plan. Lawmakers are working to revamp the proposal before it gets to the floor.

The revamped prison plan

The new plan would include the three “mega prisons” that were in the Senate version but would also add back in authorization for a new 1,200-bed women’s prison to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.  That portion of the plan was removed in the final Senate version. Some lawmakers now hope to add it back.

A local option, giving local and county authorities to take out bonds to construct the new prisons, was added in shortly before the Senate plan was passed in March. The local option stays in the House plan, allowing local public authorities to finance construction of three of the men’s regional prison facilities.

The facilities, financed and built by city or county bond authorities, would then be leased back to the state Department of Corrections for the term of the bond. The option was added to give counties like Escambia and Elmore, home to seven of 16 state correctional facilities, a chance to compete for the new regional prisons.

Most other existing state prisons would be closed once the three new men’s prisons are completed. ADOC’s initial proposal for the APTI would have consolidated 14 of Alabama’s 16 major correctional facilities into the four new prisons.

If localities choose not to go ahead with building the prisons or an agreement can’t be reached, an expected provision would allow ADOC to go ahead with building their own regional prisons by borrowing $215 million in revenue bonds for each men’s facility.

Most local authorities won’t be able to afford a $215 million bond to build a new prison that would meet the specs that ADOC will require, even if they want one. Elmore County, home to Elmore, Draper, Staton and Tutwiler correctional facilities, has an annual budget of $11 million.

Annual bond payments over thirty years for a single $215 million facility would be more than $7 million, which would take up more than half of Elmore’s budget. ADOC leasing payments would likely offset that cost.

Another $200 million in ADOC bonds would be used to build the new women’s facility to replace Tutwiler and renovate existing men’s facilities. The total bond is capped at $845 million.

Will the plan fix overcrowding, understaffing or anything at all?

Though the plan is an attempt to address overcrowding and systemic understaffing problems, it doesn’t completely alleviate them. The plan would 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.

“We’re the most overcrowded system in the nation,” said ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. “Staffing is going down. We are facing a looming class action court ruling that is going to be very significant for the state. My question is: Do we want Alabama to solve this problem, or do we want someone else to come in and tell us how to solve this problem?”

The plan doesn’t have any provisions for raising ADOC’s appropriations to hire new corrections officers or mental health staff, two issues that are the subject of lawsuits pending against the state prison system.

“To the extent that we can solve these problems ourselves, we ought to try to do that,” Dunn said.

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.

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

“I don’t think we can sentencing reform ourselves down to 137 percent capacity,” Ward said, noting that most of the state’s prison population is being held on violent offenses.

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. The US Department of Justice launched a larger investigation in 2015.

“The conditions in those prisons are not acceptable,” Ward said. “Show me the revenues that will finance just renovations and improvements.”

Opposition to the bill is fierce

Four opponents of the bill spoke at the public forum Tuesday, but many more were signed up. They took the plan to task on financing and mixed up priorities.

SPLC Legal Director Ronda Brownstein said the proposal would not solve the pressing legal issues of included in their lawsuits that are pending in federal court.

“If we had unlimited resources in Alabama, I would be all for this, but every dollar we spend on this takes money away from other things that we need to be doing,” Brownstein said. “We need to be hiring more corrections officers and mental health staff.”

Opponents of the bill said the plan was too focused on brick-and-mortar solutions rather than a more holistic approach that would include increased appropriations for ADOC and sentencing reform. A group opposing the bill, headed by Rep. Johnny Mac Morrow, D-Red Bay, are hoping to provide an alternative plan before the committee is expected to vote on the new plan next week.

They hope ADOC will consider working with county jails and sheriffs’ offices to move state prisoners to county jails to save money and give local economies a boost.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said he expects the proposal to be up for a vote in committee next week. It could be on the House floor by next Thursday.

It isn’t clear whether the proponents have the votes they need to pass the plan. APR tallies suggest the plan may have trouble getting out of committee.

If it even makes it out of the House, lawmakers would only have a few days to get the plan back up to the Senate, through conference committee and passed there again. That might be a tight squeeze with only five legislative days left.

Opponents have asked Gov. Kay Ivey to call a special session to address prison construction.

“If you see something this big coming down in the last two weeks, you better hold on. They’re trying to slide it past you,” said Rep. Allen Farley, R-Bessemer. “We need to finally get this right.”

Brick-and-mortar solutions for $800 million. Are there savings?

By consolidating the prisons into three mega-facilities, the State could save $47 million a year — enough to finance the bond payments — and wouldn’t need as many guards, ADOC officials have said.

The plan would be financed through revenue bonds, which could only be used for capital investment such as building new facilities and renovating existing ones. The revenue bonds could not be used for hiring new staff or stocking the prisons with new health equipment.

“We’re going to keep pushing this because I believe this is the foundational issue that prevents us from going forward in medical, mental health, education, treatment and vocational education,” Dunn said. “Those are all limited because of the infrastructure. If we attack the infrastructure, it doesn’t automatically solve those problems, but it creates the foundation on which we can solve those problems.

But paying back the revenue bonds would take up a chunk of ADOC’s appropriations, limiting their resources available for other uses. ADOC officials say they will save enough from consolidation to finance the bonds without affecting existing appropriations.

That idea all depends on if the savings actually happen. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency was formed in 2015 out of the consolidation of three state law enforcement agencies and nine divisions. That consolidation was expected to save more than $250 million over a decade, but those savings haven’t been actualized. ALEA requested a $60 million budget increase in January after a 30 percent drop in state troopers on the highways since 2009.

“ADOC has never explained how they will get $47 million in savings from the new prisons,” Brownstein said. “This whole idea of cost savings is absolutely false.”

The savings projection has been confirmed by the Legislative Fiscal Office, the Department of Finance and the National Institute of Corrections, but that’s not sure-fire.

“They agree with us that we can make those savings,” Dunn said.

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.


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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APR breaks it down: The $845 million plan for new prisons expected in the House

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 8 min
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