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Prison reform takes the forefront in Bentley’s annual address

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley wasted no time during his annual address Tuesday night in placing his prison construction plan at the forefront of this year’s legislative agenda.

Bentley told lawmakers, officials and judges gathered for the State of the State Address that Alabama’s prisoners are forced to live in the “worst conditions in the worst facilities of any prisons in the country.”

“Decades-old prisons were never intended to house triple the inmates that are packed inside,” Bentley said Tuesday night. “These facilities are literally crumbling.”

The Prison Transformation Initiative calls for the construction of four new prisons to replace 14 of Alabama’s 17 aging correctional facilities, seven of which have been recommended for immediate closure. The four “mega prisons” — as they have been dubbed by many lawmakers — would come at a cost of $800 million financed through the issuance of construction bonds.

“Alabama is about to embark on a complete transformation of the State’s prison system,” Bentley said Tuesday, which was also the start of the 2017 Regular Legislative Session. “The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative transforms Alabama’s prison system into a national model for the 21st century.”

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In total, the project could cost the State $1.5 billion over 30 years. The costs have many legislators concerned about whether the project could break the bank. Last year, even a watered-down version of the plan failed to pass the House on the last day of the legislative session.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer to solve this lingering, difficult and deadly problem,” Bentley said after citing the death of Corrections Officer Kenneth Bettis, who was killed in a stabbing last summer at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, as a prime example of the “boiling” tensions and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons.

“The risks are too great,” he said. “The human toll is too high to wait any longer. If you think that we can’t afford the cost of the transformation, then ask one of our corrections officers.”

The age of Alabama’s prisons and the cost-prohibitive nature of repairs aren’t the only concern. Alabama’s small prisons are also overwhelmed and overcrowded with the State’s large prison population. Many of the prisons, Bentley said Tuesday, are operating at twice or three-times capacity.

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The conditions and understaffing are so bad that ADOC is currently battling a lawsuit filed by the SPLC that alleges that the prisons do not provide adequate mental health care. In 2014, a federal court ruled that conditions at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women were unconstitutional, ordering reforms.

ADOC’s prison construction plan won’t fix all of those problems, though. The new prisons, in combination with the existing prisons that will be left open, will only reduce overcrowding to 125 percent capacity.

“A fatal flaw in the Bentley prison plan is that it would not solve prison overcrowding,” said State Auditor Jim Zeigler, an outspoken critic of the governor who is leading a campaign against the prison construction plan. He held a rally outside the State House Tuesday condemning the plan.

“It would only increase the current capacity from 13,318 to 16,000 inmates,” he said. “That is nowhere near the current population of 23,318 inmates.  We incur a billion dollars of debt for the next 30 years but do not come close to solving the problem.

Bentley and ADOC hope that sentencing reforms passed in 2013 — which have reduced the prison population by 3,000 inmates over the past four years — will continue to relieve some of the pressure on the corrections system. They also hope that the new prisons will open more opportunities for rehab and reform programs, which could reduce recidivism rates and in turn reduce the population.

“The men and women inside the prison walls are there for punishment, but they are not there to slip further into a cycle of dependency, and crime and violence and hopelessness,” he said. “When an inmate has hope for a better life on the inside, there is a greater opportunity for restoration of families and communities and lives on the outside.”

The new prisons would save taxpayers about $50 million a year in operational costs, 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.

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 savings, if accurate, would match nicely with estimated annual bond payments of about $50 million.

Some legislators do not necessarily trust ADOC’s assessments, however. Several cited the promised savings from the consolidation of several independent law enforcement agencies into ALEA, which never came to fruition. That agency has asked for nearly double its previous budget for the next fiscal year.

Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, filed the bill needed to authorize the program on Tuesday morning. The state really doesn’t have a choice, he said, and this is the best path.

“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 in an interview with APR. “It is a lot of money, and that is a valid concern, but we can pay for it with savings.”

But even with Ward’s support, and the support of House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, the plan may still have a bumpy road to passage.

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.

It remains unclear whether the bill will make it through this year despite the heavy-footed support.

Two legislators who spoke with APR expressed concern about touching anything the Governor pushes after allegations arose last year that he was maintaining an extramarital affair with Rebekah Mason and possibly using State funds to do so.

Mason was in attendance at the State of the State Tuesday night, sitting in the gallery watching the Governor give his address.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will address the bill next and could be voted on as early as Wednesday. If it gets through committee, it must then pass the Senate and the House.


Email Chip at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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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In Case You Missed It

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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