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General Fund uncertainty may hinder more criminal justice appropriations

Chip Brownlee

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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.

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.

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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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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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House OKs bill to clarify consulting contracts by state legislators

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to try to clarify how legislators accept consulting contracts under Alabama’s 2010 ethics law. Some pundits have suggested that House Bill 387 is actually designed to weaken the existing ethics law.

Sponsor state Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, argues that the legislation is merely a clarification and is intended to prevent legislators from inadvertently crossing the line into illegality.

Wingo said that his bill would require legislators to notify the Alabama Ethics Commission that they have entered into a consulting agreement in an area outside of their normal scope of work.

State Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, said, “I have never understood why members of this body were allowed to take contracts as consultants or counselors.”

Wingo said, “Never do I use the word counselor in my bill; it is consulting.”

Beckman asked, “Are we going to be getting into an area where  every time we turn around we create a bureaucratic nightmare where we have to go get an opinion. These opinions whether it is orally or written don’t hold up in a court of law.” Beckman said, “We are serving the people here but we get this admonition that we can still be a consultant if we get an opinion.”

Wingo said, “This does not apply to professions where a member is currently licensed.”

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Beckman said, “I would like to see more opinions coming out of the Ethics Commission. Right now we have the Ethics Commission competing with the Attorney General’s office over who has more authority.”

State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said,”This happened to a friend of mine. He just got out of prison. He was a state senator and had a written letter from the Ethics Commission which his lawyer read at trial and the jury convicted him anyway.”

Rogers never named his friend, but reporters think he was talking about former state Sen. Edward Browning ‘E. B.’ McClain who spent over 22 years in the legislature until he was convicted on 47 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, bribery, and money laundry in 2009.

A federal jury found that McClain and the Rev. Samuel Pettagrue were guilty in a scheme where McClain would secure public funds for Pettagrue’s community programs and then receive a kickback once the funds were in hand. McClain was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison. McClain was not prosecuted under the Alabama ethics law as the state has a much weaker ethics statute then. The current ethics law was passed in 2010.

Rogers said, “If they offer me a consulting contract for a field like aerospace engineering that I know nothing about they are trying to pay me off. If you can already be a consultant for something you know about why would you seek a consulting contract for something you don’t know about.

Rogers this is how they can pay you off for your vote.”

State Rep. Artis “A.J.” McCampbell said, “I don’t like making changes to things like this because we get into things called unintended consequences.”

McCampbell was reading from the bill and Wingo said, “You are reading from the original version it has completely changed.” “We worked tirelessly on this bill with the Ethics Commission this is not a fly by night bill.”

“If a member of the legislature enters into a contract to do a consulting contract outside of their normal field of work this bill requires that they consult with the Ethics Commission first,” Wingo said. “It is up to the member to notify the Ethics Commission not to the company or person offering them the money.”

State Representative Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said, “Everybody but legislators are allowed to do contract work up to $30,000.”

Rep. Wingo said, “This is not intended to be a roadblock.”

State Representative Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, said, “The whole purpose of this is not to prevent members from doing work in your field.” “What you are doing is offering to protect me.”

State Representative John Knight, D-Montgomery, asked Wingo what the Alabama Attorney General said about this legislation.

Wingo replied, “I have not contacted the Attorney General.”

Knight responded, “Something from the Ethics Commission does not carry a lot of protection from the Attorney General. We have seen that in the past. I think the Attorney General and the Ethics Commission should be in agreement in the working on this.”

Wingo answered, “Maybe this is a first step.”

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, asked, “Do we have anybody doing work outside of their regular scope of work?”

Wingo answered, “Yes I think so.”

Wingo said, “If we had had this bill four or five years ago maybe we could have been spared the embarrassment that this body experienced with the former Speaker.”

Wingo was referring to former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard who was convicted of 12 counts of felony ethics violations in June 2016. Ironically, Hubbard is largely responsible for creating the ethics law that he was found guilty of violating 11 times in his relentless pursuit of outside contracts and personal wealth.

Unlike McClain, however, Hubbard has not yet served any of this sentence.

House Bill 387 passed 67-0 with 26 legislators abstaining.

The bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.

(Original reporting by the Alabama Media Group’s Lisa Osborn in 2009 was consulted in this report.)

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