By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to build four new State prisons through an $800 million bond issue will be a top priority for legislators with the start of the 2017 Regular Session today.
On Tuesday, Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed a 2017 version of the bill that is relatively unchanged from last year’s version. The legislation was delivered to the State House Friday by the Governor’s Legislative Liaison and was proposed, unchanged, Ward said.
Bentley’s plan, originally crafted by ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, calls for the construction of four new prisons — three new men’s facilities and a new women’s facility. The new men’s prisons, which would hold up to 4,000 inmates each, would replace 13 of Alabama’s 17 aging correctional facilities.
The new women’s prison, which would hold up to 1,500 beds, would replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
To finance the project, the Department of Corrections proposes selling an $800 million bond, which would save the State about $50 million a year in operational savings, according to an ADOC report . The savings, they say, will be enough to pay off the bond over 30 years without any additional funding from the beleaguered State General Fund.
Last year’s version of the plan failed in the House on the last day of the Regular Session. Several concerns — from the effects on local economies to the overall cost of the initiative — held the bill back in the Legislature.
The main concern, however, was the bidding and construction process.
Bidding and transparency
The plan calls for the use of a design-build construction method. With this plan, one entity would be chosen to both design the facilities and construct them.
In the normal bidding process, the design-bid-build method, one entity bids for the design contract and another bid for the construction contract.
Several legislators, and many in the media, were concerned that the plan would be less transparent and perhaps even be a no-bid process. But the design-build plan would save the State money and yield better results all while maintaining an open bid process, Ward said.
“As opposed to having one person design it and one person build it, the one person who gets the bid does the whole job,” Ward said. “It’s still bid, and it’s still transparent on the bid, but design-build saves you money.”
With the proposed plan, public “requests for proposals” would still be advertised to solicit proposals for the State’s two-step, qualifications-based, best-value selection process. Any company can submit their qualifications and a proposal, Ward said.
The best proposal that yields the best value for the State would be selected, according to ADOC.
The design-build method, though it is not the usual method used by governments for such projects, has been used by other states and the Federal government for the construction of several prisons.
A federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, was constructed using a design-build method at a cost of $219 million. It was completed in 2011 and has a capacity of 1,408 beds.
The method saves the State money by ensuring there is maximum communication between designers and contractors, Ward said.
Using the other design-bid-build method, communication between the two different design and construction teams often proves difficult and leads to lower-quality products and scheduling delays, according to ADOC.
“Those two separate entities often times are not working hand-in-hand to make sure it’s done right,” Ward said. “You have cost overruns where there is confusion that takes place.”
Even with the expected savings, the four new prisons will still require the $800 million bond issue. After the prisons are completed, the State will then begin paying back the bond over 30 years at a total cost of more than $1.5 billion.
It’s a lot of money, Ward admitted, but Alabama doesn’t really have a choice.
Overcrowding, understaffing and unconstitutional conditions
Over the past several years, ADOC assessed all 17 major detention facilities. According to the report, seven of the State’s 17 prisons need to be closed and seven other newer facilities need more than $279 million in repairs to extend their useful life.
To bring all the existing prisons up to standards would require more than $440 million.
ADOC’s facility assessment doesn’t even take into account overcrowding and the federal judiciary’s increasing impatience with Alabama’s prison system. In 2014, conditions at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison were so bad that a Federal court ruled them unconstitutional and ordered improvements.
And another lawsuit over mental health conditions at Alabama’s prisons went to trial in December.
Alabama’s prisons are currently housing inmates at more than twice their capacity. The overcrowding continues even though the inmate population has decreased by more than 3,000 over the last three years thanks to sentencing reforms in 2013, Ward said.
“You’re going to build these facilities one way or the other,” Ward said. “If you build them this way, you can pay back bonds with the savings.”
The Governor’s plan addresses overcrowding and terrible understaffing problems, but it doesn’t completely alleviate them. The plan would only reduce overcrowding to about 125 percent capacity over the next five years.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery-based civil rights legal organization, doesn’t believe Bentley’s plan solves the State’s underlying problems of understaffing and inadequate health care. The SPLC is currently litigating a lawsuit alleging that the State is deliberately indifferent to prisoners’ mental health needs.
“There is no question that Alabama needs to improve its prison facilities,” said Ebony Howard, SPLC associate legal director. “But spending $800 million on four new prisons will not fix the grossly inadequate medical and mental health care, the ongoing staff shortage or the unspeakable levels of violence.”
Last week, SPLC lawyers summarized the evidence they presented in court over the past eight weeks. ADOC employs too few mental health and custody personnel, and many lack needed qualifications, the SPLC said.
Bentley’s plan is drawing criticism from his own party as well. State Auditor Jim Zeigler will lead a rally Tuesday afternoon opposing the Prison Transformation Initiative.
The rally is sponsored by several Tea Party and conservative groups.
Zeigler believes the plan will not solve the State’s prison overcrowding and would only raise prison capacity from about 13,000 to 16,000, far short of the inmate population of 23,000.
“We incur almost a billion dollars of debt for the next 30 years but do not come close to solving the problem. Big borrowed cost – no solution,” Zeigler said in a Facebook post Sunday.
Savings and benefits
Consolidation using the four “mega prisons” would reduce staffing costs by about $17 million a year, overtime payments by $21 million a year and healthcare delivery by $10 million, according to two independent studies commissioned by ADOC.
The plan calls for no reduction in health care staff but consolidates the healthcare administration from 14 different facilities to only three regional men’s facilities, which should increase access to healthcare while reducing costs.
The consolidation would also allow for a 6 percent reduction in security staff and a 19 percent reduction in support staff, ADOC said.
Savings from the new prisons’ overall lower operating costs will allow ADOC to support the billion-dollar bond issue through its current annual appropriation. They say no changes to their General Fund appropriation will be needed.
Savings total $50 million a year, which, if accurate, would match nicely with estimated annual bond payments of about $50 million.
“I can guarantee you that the federal courts are going to tell us we have to do this, and I would rather pay for it with savings than pay for it with a tax increase,” Ward said. “It is a lot of money, and that is a valid concern, but we can pay for it with savings.”
A compromise plan proposed last year reduced the bond issue to about $550 million and cut the number of prisons from three regional men’s prisons to only two. Even with the changes, the compromise bill failed in the House because there weren’t enough votes to break filibuster and close debate.
The new bill, which Bentley and Ward have marked as a priority, will be debated during the 2017 Regular Session set to begin this afternoon.
Ward said he didn’t make any changes to Bentley’s plan this year because he wants to bill to work itself through the legislative process, which would give members the opportunity to change what they don’t like. He said he expects a lot of changes and compromises.
Changes and negotiations are welcome, but the Legislature needs to do something, Ward said.
“Sitting on our hands and saying that we’re not going to build anything at all, that’s not a good idea,” Ward said. “We could try to fool ourselves to that, but it’s coming soon where we’re going to have to be forced into building new facilities.”
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.