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Many Stumbling Blocks To Prison Reform

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Governor Robert Bentley wants to float $800 million in bonds to build new prisons. Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner, Jeff Dunn wants that, too. Some State Senators believe Bentley and Dunn are using the recent prison violence as a way to gin up support for their plan. They also think Dunn is implying a takeover by the federal authorities is imminent.

No one in their right mind who has toured Alabama’s crumbling prisons would deny there are problems of epic proportion. Outside of Bentley, Dunn and the companies knowing they may gain millions in borrowed State money, it would be difficult to find anyone willing to spend nearly a billion dollars, in a no-bid scheme known as design-build, to construct Bentley’s dream prisons.

Bentley and Dunn have doubled down on the no-bid design-build aspect of their plan. In a recent meeting with contractors who want to follow the State’s long-held bid laws, Dunn became so dismissive that Montgomery builder R. Scott Williams sent him a letter expressing his frustration at Dunn’s demeanor and tone during the August meeting writing, “In the matter of the meeting itself, I was surprised at the abrupt ending and want to express my disappointment in your demeanor,” wrote Williams. “Where a point is being made that expresses the will of the people I feel it is your obligation to listen. To summarily cut off dialogue before the train of thought is completed shows great contempt for those you serve.”

SEE LETTER

Williams also demanded an apology from Dunn to Heather Coleman-Davis, a lobbyist who represents several mid-size contracting and design firms. “Your characterization of Mrs. Davis as being an impediment to the discussions in advancing prison reform is grossly inaccurate. Her knowledge, leadership, and skills are best described as efficient and effective. I am shocked that you do not appreciate her presence as it offers genuine assistance and to this end, I believe Mrs. Davis is due an apology from you,” wrote Williams.

When Dunn failed to respond Williams request for an apology to Davis, he went a step further and called for Dunn to resign. “Predicated on your actions in our meeting of 8/24/16, you showed your great disdain for the competitive bid laws of the State of Alabama,” Williams wrote. “Your attitude and actions made it obvious that your role is to place dissemination of monies ahead of responsible leadership and problem solving. And in as much as you have rebuffed my suggestion to apologize to Mrs. Davis I think it is only appropriate that you tender your resignation.”

SEE LETTER

As for an impending seizure of State prisons, Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) President Richard Cohen sees no evidence of a federal takeover. However, SPLC has successfully forced the State to take actions on the rights of prisoners with disabilities. Under an order from Federal Judge Myron Thompson the State has agreed to make its facilities compliant with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

This is one element of a class actions suit on behalf of all Alabama inmates. The next part of the suit concerns providing proper mental health treatment for those incarcerated by the State contends, “the medical and mental health care [in State prisons] is below the constitutional minimum,” Cohen said. “It is constitutionally inadequate.”

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In 2012, two years before SPLC sued the State, Maria Morris, who serves as managing attorney for the SPLC, in an interview with the Alabama Political Reporter, warned, that ‘Overcrowding leads to a variety of health issue that put inmates and correctional employees at greater risk of disease.’

In fact, numerous medical studies have shown that many diseases, even the drug-resistant, are born and fostered in overpopulated correctional facilities. According to the CDC, such infectious diseases as Tuberculosis (TB), HIV and Hepatitis A, B, and C Virus are the biggest threats inside overcrowded prison walls.

“When staff contracts the diseases from inmates they, in turn, bring them home to the community,” said Morris. “This is also true when inmates are released back into their communities.”

Four years later, SPLC is successfully suing to bring the reforms the State promised but failed to deliver with the passage of the Prison Reform Act.

Cohen says the second phase of the court proceedings will address mental health neglect, which will be tried in December. He says Judge Thompson is planning to rule on that case in February. “After that part of the case is tried, the court will try the rest of the medical part as to physical care,” said Cohen. “It is not clear when that will happen. I think the court wants to reach a decision on the mental health first.”

As to the issue of a federal takeover Cohen said, “If the ADOC fears eventual federal intervention into the prison system, it must be because the state knows it is operating the prisons in an unconstitutional manner.”

Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is a leading champion on reforming the Justice System, which includes meeting the constitutional standards in prison facilities.

He believes Judge Thompson will give the State time to begin to resolve the issues on inmate care and compliance with ADA but thinks it will be a huge challenge. “[Thompson] is not saying he is going to take over, he is going to say that our prisons are unconstitutional due to structures, healthcare, etc. but he in not going to impose any sanctions,” Ward said. “He is going to give us time to address it. That is what is coming.”

“[Thompson] is not saying he is going to take over, he is going to say that our prisons are unconstitutional due to structures, healthcare, etc., but he in not going to impose any sanctions,” Ward said. “He is going to give us time to address it. That is what is coming.”

Ward says if the Legislature doesn’t address the issues in the next regular session Judge Thompson, “will come back with a hammer and force us to fix it.”

He thinks the biggest issues that Judge Thompson is going to find is: “The facilities you are running don’t meet constitutional muster,” Ward said. “And demand we build new medical facilities within the existing facilities,” Ward says he is working with the Governor, Dunn, and others to find a solution, but it’s going to be tough.

Those who understand the problems of the State’s antiquated prison system know, that the competing interests from the Executive Branch to high powered construction lobbyists present a major stumbling block to a wise path forward.

Judge Thompson may be the only force to push the State into the Twenty-first century.

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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.

Brandon Moseley

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Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville (TUBERVILLE CAMPAIGN)

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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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