By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley delivered his annual State of the State speech. Gov. Bentley made his pitch for borrowing $800 million to build four new prisons the focus of his speech which lasted just over one hour. The Governor compared himself to an Olympic athlete finishing his final 23 months in office like an athlete completes a race.
On the prisons the Gov. argued that, “The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative will transform Alabama’s prison system into a national model for the 21st Century. The initiative will consolidate 14 of 16 maximum custody level prisons into four large scale, state-of-the-art regional correctional facilities – three men’s facilities and one women’s facility to permanently replace Tutwiler Prison for Women. Combined with recent prison reform legislation that has reduced the prison population, the increased capacity of these 4 larger facilities will reduce the prison population to 125 percent over the next five years. Four large facilities will help us save tens of millions on maintenance costs for these Depression era buildings, we will save millions on overtime and personnel costs of Officers and staff, protecting not just inmates but our Law Enforcement officers as well. And the facilities will be much better able to provide proven and badly needed rehabilitation and re-entry programs for substance abuse treatment, counseling, job training and work release training – so that inmates are able to successfully transition back into our communities. Better facilities will provide better and broader rehabilitation programs – and that means inmates are less likely to find themselves back in prison.”
The controversial proposal has wide bipartisan opposition.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) said on social media, “Gov. Bentley is trying to paint his $800 million borrowing plan for prisons as compassionate and Christian. He is using good citizens to try to sell his bad plan.”
State Representative Christopher John England (D-Tuscaloosa) said, “there has to be a better reason to borrow and spend 1.5 billion dollars other than just building new prisons. Any plan for prisons in Alabama that does not include a substantial investment in mental health and substance abuse treatment is not a plan that I can support.”
State Representative Mike Holmes (R-Wetumpka) called Gov. Bentley’s prison plan a, “Fiscally irresponsible plan.” Rep. Holmes said that he thought it was suspicious that the $50 million in savings perfectly equally the $50 million in debt service costs with the plan. Holmes said that if a business presented such a plan to the bank it would get thrown out of the banker’s office.
Gov. Bentley spent the first twenty minutes of his speech recounting the many successes of his administration including: unemployment dropping to just five percent; that Alabama’s labor force is the largest it has been in 5 years with two million Alabamians now in the workforce; new employers including Airbus and Polaris; construction of his Gulf State Park hotel and conference center; the opening of I-22; his veterans program that has resulted in a State veteran unemployment rate of 4.1 percent which is lower than the State and national unemployment rates; the $1.2 billion ATRIP road building program; reducing the size of the State bureaucracy; recovering from the 2011 tornados and building 275 more community safe rooms and over 4000 individual safe rooms; expanding the State’s Pre-K program; the multi-state compact on fighting opioid addiction; and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
In addition to his massive prison building program, Gov. Bentley vowed to continue to expand Pre-K; fight Sanctuary Cities; training and educating Alabamians with particular focus on Alabama’s 55 rural counties; addressing the chronic underperformance of Alabama’s education system which is at the bottom in the country; battling Alabama’s doctor shortage (the state is presently 40th in the number of doctors per capita); home based treatment of psychiatric issues including autism; create a task force to study eliminating the sales tax on basic groceries; and addressing the State’s opioid pain killer crisis (Alabama has the highest rate of prescribing pain killers in the nation and the world).
The Governor concluded, “The course is laid out for us in our time of service here. There is a limited amount of time, and many checkpoints along the way. Millions in the bleachers are watching us as we serve, some will cheer, some will mock. They see our victories, our defeats, our struggles but they also see our determination. And our people know who we are and what we are capable of, if we just stay the course, and no matter what obstacle we face, We Finish the Race. God Bless You All. And may God Bless the Great State of Alabama.
To read the Governor’s lengthy speech in its entirety: