By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — Twenty gifts cards will be given away today to Alabama lawmakers as an incentive for them to attend a breakfast to discuss the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million prison bond construction initiative.
The 20 gift cards are to local restaurants and are valued at $25. The invitation sent by the Governor’s Office said the breakfast and the door prizes have been precleared by the Alabama Ethics Commission.
The breakfast, entitled “Built in Alabama: Corrections Construction Summit,” will host presenters from Georgia-based architecture and building firm Rosser International, the Kansas-based design firm DLR Group and the workforce development agency AIDT.
Katherine Lynn, assistant finance director for the Department of Finance, will give the welcome and introductions.
The speakers are planned to discuss design, budgeting and delivery along with the economic impact the new design-build prisons will have on the State. A drawing for the door prizes will be held at the end.
The Prison Transformation Initiative designed by ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn 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.
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
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. Those savings never came to fruition, and that agency has asked for nearly double its previous budget for the next fiscal year.
It remains unclear whether the bill will make it through this year despite the heavy-footed support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones and the Governor.
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.
The Governor has made the prison construction plan his top priority in the legislative session, spending much of his State of the State Address highlighting the need for it. Ward said Tuesday afternoon that he hopes the bill will be up in committee next week.