By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, January 12, the joint House and Senate Committees on the long troubled State General Fund (SGF). The first state agency to testify was the Department of Corrections. Corrections is asking the legislature for an $18 million increase in their 2017 fiscal year budget.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that the increase will allow the Department advance our vision to transform the state’s prison system.
Commissioner Dunn said that we incarcerate 24,000 inmates in 28 facilities across the state and oversee another 3,800 people in community corrections programs. Dunn said that the program employs nearly 4000 correction officers and staff. In the last year the department has reached an agreement with the US Justice Department to reform the Tutwiler Prison for Women.
There have been a number of allegations of prison guards allegedly sexually abusing women at the facility over the years.
Dunn said that the prison system hired a new deputy commissioner for training of the correction officers. We have hired the department’s first Inspector General to provide oversight. We have fully manned our investigations division which seeks to eliminate criminal activities among offenders.
Dunn said that Corrections was one of the few agencies that received level funding and we are grateful for that but due to rising costs that created a $12 million shortfall which forced the Department to postponed upgrades to security and divert funds to expand the community corrections program to other needs. They also had to postpone some plans for improving the prison infrastructure.
Dunn said that interdicting contraband in the prison has become a State and national problem. The system still has a shortage of corrections officers and has a need to improving security at our aging facilities.
Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) said I am still officially the Finance and Taxation General Fund Chairman until next month when I move to Chairman of the Finance and Taxation Education Committee and Senator Trip Pittman (R-Montrose) takes over here.
Dunn said that the Department has had to pay increases in mandatory employee benefits and rising health care costs which is the reasons for the deficit.
Orr asked about the progress on installing the new security locks?
Dunn said that the St Clair security doors is progressing but that he has had to postpone three other projects. Those are on hold pending funding.
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison) asked if Corrections had a lobbyist and how much do they spend to lobby the legislature??
Commissioner Dunn said No, they do not have an outside lobbyist. They have a government affairs person on staff.
On overtime Dunn said that supervisors are allowed to offer overtime to employees as needed only to a certain level. They have to seek a higher level of authorization to exceed that maximum level.
Dunn said that the ratio of guards to prisoners is one to 9.5. The Department has 2800 corrections officers. They use overtime due to the lack of security provided by the guard shortage. Alabama’s prisons are staffed with guards at just 65 percent of the national average. The goal would be to try to get to 70 to 75 percent of corrections officers to other states. Dunn said that all of the Southern states are having difficulty staffing their prisons. “All of those states are experiencing corrections officer shortages.”
Dunn said that the prisons spend $65 million on professional services. “Our legal team handles 700 to 750 cases a year.” There are 30,000 persons in the system. That includes: prisoners, and people in community corrections as well as diversionary programs. 24,000 prisoner are housed in buildings with a design capacity of just 13,000. “Functional capacity is however many inmates we have we shoe horn them in there.”
State Representative Rich Wingo (R-Tuscaloosa) asked Dunn, “What do you want us to know?”
Dunn said I started in April first of last year. “I have been incredibly impressed with the dedication of the employees and staff.” They labor in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions. “This is a department under great stress and they have been under stress for a very long time. The employees are committed to hanging in there no matter what. They are dedicated public servants performing a vital service to the State.”
Wingo asked, “What are you doing to control healthcare costs?”
Dunn said that the system is trying to get healthcare services at the best price we can get to serve the population that we have. The current contract is a three year contract.
Dunn said that the system has brought back virtually all of the inmates from county facilities. There are approximately 45 females still in a jail in Clay County.
Dunn said that contraband is still a problem, particularly cell phones due to the allure of the amount of money an inmate can get with a phone. Understaffing makes it more difficult to prevent and find contraband.
Rep. John Knight Knight (D-Montgomery) asked about the healthcare contract.
Dunn said that the contract is $107 million and includes mental health. $93 million for health and $11.2 million for mental health. Community corrections which diverts many from reaching the actual prison has resulted in more inmates with mental health issues coming into the system.
Rep. Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) asked, “What is the cost per inmate?”
Dunn said that the State spends $44 per day. The national average is $85 per day.
Gaston asked if they have the resources to do basic rehabilitation
Dunn said that somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of our inmates will at some point reenter the community. The recidivism rate is somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. Providing more transition services will directly affect the recidivism rate. Where they are able to offer supervised release the recidivism rate is in the teens,
Dunn said that due to staffing shortages they have bought back 75 retired employees. They are some of our most experienced employees in the system,
Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Shelby County) suggested that the prisons sell land assets to generate money.
Dunn said that the system has a total of 15,000 acres 5600 acres are leased out for farming and 1200 acres are leased out for sand and gravel mining. The prisons sold some property in 2007 and put other land on the market that did not sell and that was then leased.
Rep. Knight said, “We have already started with Corrections with an $18 million increase. Do we have someone from the executive branch with an estimate of how much revenue we will have?”
Rep. Steve Clouse said that the Finance Department will address us tomorrow (Wednesday) with that. They were going to be here today but had a conflict.
The combine House and Senate General Fund Committees have been holding hearing all week a month before the session begins.
Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Lee County) said in a statement on Facebook Thursday, “And the third day of budget hearings – it’s really good that we started these back. It gives the agencies an opportunity to show the public what they do with the tax dollars allocated to them and it gives legislators more of an idea of where your dollars really need to be spent.”
According to some sources the state faces a $200 million State General Fund shortfall for fiscal year 2017 and there is some fear that 2016 general fund revenues are not coming in as high as were projected.
Tuberville calls for term limits, balanced budget and lobbying reform
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s campaign began emphasizing key structural reforms that the Republican nominee hopes to advance if elected to the U.S. Senate including congressional term limits, withholding lawmakers’ paychecks unless a balanced budget is passed and a ban on former officials becoming lobbyists.
“Only an outsider like me can help President Trump drain the Swamp, and any of the proposals outlined in this ad will begin the process of pulling the plug,” Tuberville said in a statement. “Doug Jones has had his chance, and he failed our state, so now it’s time to elect a senator who will work to fundamentally change the way that Washington operates.”
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
“You know Washington politicians could learn a lot from the folks in small town Alabama, but Doug Jones … he’s too liberal to teach them,” Tuberville added.
Polls consistently show that term limits are popular with people across both political parties, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing term limits would be adding a qualification to be a member of Congress and that can only be done by constitutional amendment.
It is an unspoken truth that when Americans send someone to Congress they never come back. They either keep getting re-elected like Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby, who is in his sixth term in the Senate after four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, they may become lobbyists getting paid to influence their colleagues on behalf of corporations, foreign governments or some well funded non-government organization.
Tuberville said he would ban that practice.
A balanced budget amendment almost passed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.
Since that failure, Congress has increasingly passed bigger and bigger budget deficits. The U.S. government borrowed more money during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s presidency than the government had borrowed in the first 224 years of the country combined.
President Barack Obama followed and the TARP program propped up the post-Great Recession economy. Rather than cutting the deficit, President Donald Trump invested billions in the military and a tax cut without cutting domestic spending. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has further grown the budget.
The government has borrowed trillions to prop up the economy and provide stimulus while investing billions into medical research and treating the virus victims. Congress is currently debating a fifth stimulus package that would add more to the deficit.
Both a balanced budget amendment and a term limits amendment would have to be ratified by the states if passed by Congress. Tuberville is challenging incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.
House passes General Fund Budget
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.
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.
Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday
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.
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.
Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor
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.
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.