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General Fund uncertainty may hinder more criminal justice appropriations

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—The Alabama Medicaid Agency isn’t the only part of the State government with funding issues, and uncertainty over the future of Medicaid is spilling over into other agencies’ funding as well.

The Alabama Legislature will begin its regular legislative session in just a few weeks. As lawmakers prepare, the session will bring another stint of debate over the State’s beleaguered General Fund budget, the budget that funds all noneducational agencies of the State government.

On Wednesday, officials from several law-enforcement and court agencies presented their proposed budgets to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, along with what they need from the Legislature in the upcoming session.

On the top of their priority lists: more funding.

Officials from the Office of Prosecution Services — the State agency tasked with assisting district attorneys in preparing an annual consolidated budget — said recent drops in fee revenue and no accompanying increase from State funding has been making their job of prosecuting criminals more difficult.

Over the past several years, State funding to DAs has dropped to only 26 percent of their total funding. The rest, coming from local fees and court costs, has been decreasing as well, according to Barry Matson, director of OPS. Matson said prosecutors need more help from the Legislature.

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Funding for prosecutors in the State is so short that Matson said OPS almost ran out of funding last year because State law requires some reserve funding to remain in place. In the first quarter of this year, the Office was “within an hour of bouncing every paycheck for every prosecutor in Alabama,” he said.

Legislators, including Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, were sympathetic, but providing more funding could prove difficult, he said.

“They definitely need more appropriations,” Ward told APR. “I think they’re going to get some, but they’re not going to get all they need just because of the dire straights of the General Fund budget.”

Ward said he would love to give law-enforcement agencies and courts in the State more funding, but uncertainty over the future of Medicaid and its effects on the State General Fund have proved overwhelming to legislators.

Before the Great Recession, Medicaid took up about $400–430 million of the State’s General Fund. Today, the agency eats almost $800 million of the total $1.8 billion General Fund, making it the largest single portion of the budget.

Last year, legislators were faced with an $81 million shortfall in Medicaid funding, which was solved with money from a settlement with BP over the 2011 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. \ That shortfall forced the Legislature into two special sessions, which culminated in a fix built on increases to several sin taxes that was agreed upon only weeks before the 2016 Fiscal Year was set to begin on Oct. 1, 2016.

This year may be equally uncertain, as changes coming to the Affordable Care Act from Washington under the Trump administration could make its future just as blurry. Some changes, in the end, may prove to be positive for the State budget, Ward said, but others may prove to be negative.

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“The bad is the unknown,” Ward said. “We don’t know what it’s going to cost us. It may save us money, but it may increase the costs as well. … Until you know what your cost is going to be on Medicaid, you really don’t know what to do with the rest of the General Fund budget until you get a better idea from the Federal government.”

And district attorneys aren’t the only ones seeking a funding increase. Mental health and the Department of Corrections are also looking for help from the Legislature.

Prison construction

On Wednesday, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn also informed the Committee that the Department would move forward with a plan to get an $800 billion bond issue to replace aging prisons by building four new, consolidated corrections facilities.

Three of the facilities would house 4,000 male inmates a piece and one new prison would house female offenders. But to build the new prisons, the Department would need the approval of the Legislature. Last year, the proposal died in the final days of the regular session.

Ward has hope that the plan, which he is sponsoring in the Senate, will get through this year.

“As the legislative process works its way through, there will be a lot of comprises that get made,” Ward said. “There is some opposition. There are people who have good points. The best thing we have been doing, and the best thing we can do, is sit down with the opposition and find out if there are ways of negotiation to figure out what everyone is comfortable with.”

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Many legislators are concerned that closing so many of the State’s prisons could affect their districts’ economies. Ward said the Legislature would need to address the plan and review “how many prisons need to be built and where they need to be built.”

In addition to geographic and economic concerns, Ward said he wants to make sure that the process complies with all transparency and open bidding rules.

Nevertheless, something needs to happen with the prisons, Ward said.

“With the lawsuits that we have against us out there, at some point, at some time, we’re going to be forced into a situation where we have to have new prisons,” Ward said. “I would prefer to do it on the State’s terms as opposed to being mandated by a judge.”

Judicial override

On Monday, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Alabama’s system of judicial override, effectively marking the State’s sentencing method as constitutional.

Alabama law allows judges to impose the death penalty in some capital murder cases, even when the jury refused to vote unanimously for the death penalty. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Dick Brewbaker, were concerned that the law would be ruled unconstitutional after the Supreme Court ruled a similar sentencing structure in Florida unconstitutional.

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Months later, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that state’s judicial override laws unconstitutional, leaving Alabama as the only State where a judge can impose the death penalty.

Brewbaker, a Republican from Montgomery, prefiled a bill earlier this year that would abolish judicial override, and even with the effective OK from the US Supreme Court, the Senate Judiciary Committee will still consider that bill, Ward said.

“I think Sen. Brewbaker is right to introduce that,” Ward said. “I think he’s right that we need to examine that process. With ours being declared constitutional, I don’t think it’s going to have as good of a chance as it once did, but it’s very good. I promise Sen. Brewbaker that we’re going to have that bill up for debate because he raises some very good points.”

Since 1976, more than 92 percent of 107 overrides have resulted in a judge imposing the death penalty when a trial jury voted to recommend life in prison, according to Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Heroin trafficking

On Feb. 7, the start of the Legislative Session, Ward plans to propose a bill that would be aimed at tackling the heroin epidemic facing the State.

Matson, from the Office of Prosecution Services, asked the Judiciary Committees Wednesday to help fight heroin trafficking into the state, particularly trafficking of a stronger heroin-fentanyl mix.

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Ward said his bill will “crack down on” high-volume heroin trafficking by rendering it a Class A Felony instead of its current status as a Class B Felony. If traffickers have a certain weight of heroin, they will face stiffer sentencing.

“It should be a Class A Felony,” Ward said. “If you see the way it has just roamed across our cities and streets. This is probably one of the biggest drug problems we’ve had.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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