By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, May 4, the Alabama House of Representatives let the latest version of Governor Robert Bentley’s (R) controversial prison construction plan die from lack of action after a conference committee attempted to bring forward a compromise measure.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) said in a statement: “The bill was poorly written. The idea of one gigantic contract was bad. Alabama citizens and many officials did not have confidence in the Bentley administration to handle this huge project without shenanigans.”
House Minority Leader Craig Ford (R-Gadsden) was a highly vocal critic of the project. He said, “The $800 million alone would put the taxpayers on the hook for about $50 million a year just for debt payment! Last year, Gov. Bentley was so concerned about the State’s debt he tried to raise $541 million in new taxes. Now he wants to add another $800 million on to that debt?”
Rep. Ford said, “To me, there’s something not right about this situation. This seems like the kind of bill that someone goes to prison over; the kind of bill that is loaded with kickbacks designed to line the pockets of elected officials. Gov. Bentley wants to use a process called “design-build” where the whole project is awarded to only one company that gets a no-bid contract, meaning there’s no competition for the contract. The state would have no say over who gets the subcontracts, and the taxpayers would be on the hook for a situation that could easily succumb to waste, fraud, abuse and corruption.”
State Representative Tim Wadsworth (R-Arley) said, “Prior to Starting the 26th Legislative Day numerous legislators joined together to publicly oppose the $800 million prison bill. The bill proposes tearing down all existing prisons and building 4 brand new prisons and borrowing 100 percent of funds to built these prisons and then using tax dollars to pay for these prisons. This group of legislators including myself stand strong against this bill. We believe that it is fiscally irresponsible to go forward with this bill. No economic impact studies have been completed.”
State Representative Dario Melton (D-Selma) wrote, “If we’re going to put our kids on the hook to repay $1.5 billion, let’s at least leave them with a project they can be proud of–safe roads and bridges, public transportation, broadband access in every school, quality learning environments. Through this plan, the Governor has sent a strong message: we expect prisons to be the future of Alabama. He’s given up on fixing mental health programs, creating expansive educational opportunities, rebuilding our communities and rehabilitating our people. What an embarrassment. Alabama can and will do more–but we must demand better. We must demand a brighter future for our children, not one saddled with debt and locked away in a state of the art super-max prison.”
Bentley claimed that the Alabama Department of Corrections could find the $50 million a year in their budget be becoming more efficient.
Zeigler said, “Almost no one believed that four large prisons would produce $50 million a year in operational savings in order to pay for the bond issue.”
Despite the criticism, the leadership of both Houses supported the controversial legislation. It passed out of the Alabama Senate. The House however narrowly passed a much altered bill on Thursday, April 28. The Senate refused to pass the House version of the bill. Eventually the legislation went to a conference committee. The committee downsized the bill to $550 million. The Senate passed the measure before 11:00 p.m. with time expiring on the legislative session. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) and the House leadership never brought the unpopular conference committee version to the floor of the House because the leadership never had the votes to cloture a Democratic filibuster, despite desperate lobbying by the Governor’s staff.
Now that the Prison Transformation Act has failed, there is speculation that Gov. Bentley will call a special session to address prisons and Medicaid this summer.