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Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on prison reform

Brandon Moseley



By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Wednesday, March 1, 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Governor Robert Bentley’s controversial plan to borrow $800 millions in bonds in order to build four massive new prisons. Senate Bill 70 is being sponsored in the Senate by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster).

Sen. Ward said, “I have committed my life to prison reform over the last few years.”

Ward said that you can not operate a 21st century prison system with buildings built in the mid 20th century and offer the services that we need. There are ten amendments in the bill of rights. The 8th amendment to the Constitution is there just like the second and we have to follow it. We are going to build facilities at some point, whether we do it on our own or we are forced to do it by a federal judge.

Sen. Ward rejected the notion that we need to wait on construction. “We have studied everything that we can study.” Ward said that through sentencing reform bill the number of inmates has declined 18 percent since 2012. Ward said that the combination of building new prisons and the sentencing reforms already passed will lower prison capacity to just 137 percent of capacity. Ward said that we have to build prisons or have a mass release. 72 percent of the prison population are there for violent crimes: the highest rate in the country. “We are making progress but sentencing alone won’t get you there.”

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that a year ago we introduced this plan to transform the prisons. I wish I could report that things have gotten better but they have gotten worse. We have had the single greatest decrease in officers in our history. As staffing levels have dropped violence has increased. We are the most overcrowded prison system in the nation and the most violent. In March we had an uprising. Inmates gained control of part of one facility (Holman Prison) and we had to send our tactical unit to regain control. A warden was attacked and stabbed. In September we had a Corrections office murdered. “He gave his life for the safety of this state.” The US Department of Justice has begun an investigation. Three inmates have been killed in Elmore county in the last two months.

Commissioner Dunn spoke in favor of the plan. It would improve the safety and security of our staff and inmates, expand our ability to rehabilitate, and seeks to control the rising infrastructure costs. Dunn insisted that our facilities are literally crumbling. Dunn insisted that improved efficiencies would be sufficient to pay for paying the $800 million bond issue. Dunn claimed that repairing the existing prisons would cost $440 million. Dunn claimed that the facilities are too far gone to get these facilities back up to standards. “That is a very poor investment.”

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State Senator Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) asked if you have you not selected the sites for the new prisons. “It seems like you are putting the cart before the horse,” if you are not able to answer our questions.

Commissioner Dunn claimed that there was a very detailed site selection process. Dunn said that they would try to site new facilities in such a way that they do not affect our current employees

Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) said that there should be competitive bidding on this from the very beginning of the project. This is a massive project. This money needs to be spent on qualified Alabama people.

Smitherman added, “We have a serious problem with the mentally ill and drug treatment in the prisons. All of those things need to be simultaneously addressed while we are building prisons.

Smitherman compared it to like replacing a failing school with a new school building without addressing the problems that caused the school to fail.

Senator Bobby Singleton (D-Greensborough) said that Mississippi did something similar with a design build prison project and now people may be going to prison over it. “I am getting messages from my constituents who say we are going to be on the hook for this. Why should we trust you why this delivery method for this projects when you have not even told us where it is going to be.

Senator Tom Whatley (D-Lee County) said that this is just a one time exception from the public works law

Heather Coleman Davis representing the Alabama Contractors Association and the Sureties Association of Alabama spoke against the bill. “We are not opposed to building prisons if that is what you decide to do.” Davis said that the contractors would only support the massive prison construction project if the state would follow the competitive bid law. Davis said that you get the best price for the state of Alabama when the project is competitively bid.

Bentley and Ward however are insisting that this be a design build where the administration picks one and that contractor picks all the subcontractors for the four prisons. Sen. Ward said that his bill contains language guaranteeing that all engineers and architects used in the project be licensed in Alabama and that the project will include competitive bidding and minority contractor participation.

Davis said that the most transparent process to get the contract done is with competitive bids. With s design build there is a handpicked general contractor who hand selects who gets the projects including the subcontractors. “An $800 million project needs to be competitively bid.”

Davis said that the Sureties Association of Alabama also has a problem with how these bonds are being written. A general obligation bond has to be voted on by the people; but the administration is writing this $800 million special revenue bonds, which is used for things with its own dedicated revenue stream like a toll road or a draw bridge.

State Finance Director Clinton Carter explained that the bonds will be issued by a non-profit corporation they are creating which will lease the facilities to the Department of Corrections and that money goes back to pay the $800 million debt. Carter explained that in order to get the best rate they will have to guarantee the debt with an existing ten cent tax on alcohol sales and another four cent tax on alcohol. Those revenues currently are earmarked to fund DHR and the state Bureau of Veteran Affairs

Commissioner Dunn said that each of the four mega prisons will occupy 40 to 50 acres and then there needs to be a buffer zone so each facility will need 200 to 300 acres.

Southern Poverty Law Center Associate legal director Ebony Howard said that the SPLC is opposed to this bill because the plan has no specifics about mental healthcare and healthcare for the inmates. She acknowledged her group’s lawsuit; but said that there is no indication that Judge Myron Thompson would order the Corrections Department to build new prisons.

Senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) said, “This bill does not solve all of our issues but it does address one of our issues: overcrowding.”

The warden at Holman Prison, Cynthia. We are dilapidated, antiquated. We are part of the state of Alabama

Bullock County Commissioner Ron Smith said that their county has the lowest per capita income in the state and that their prison is their Mercedes. “I am here to talk about the impact of my community Bullock County.” Smith pled with the county to save their prison or build one of the mega prisons there.

The Executive Director of Eagle Forum Alabama Deborah Love asked members of the committee to please vote “no.” This will indebt generations of Alabama children with a minimum of $800 million.”

Director Love said that the Governor should not be given this much authority and that they favor moving away from central authority. Each of these four prisons will house more prisoners than the populations of most towns in Alabama.

Love said that there are too many regulations and over criminalization. “We do not want to incentivize the government to incarcerate more individuals.” “We can all agree that we have too many laws in the state of Alabama.”

Senator Hank Sanders (D-Selma) said, “Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rate in the world. Either the people in Alabama are the worst people in the world or there is something wrong with the system.”

Clio Mayor Jack Pelfrey said that his town is deeply in debt in order to perform water and sewer projects to the state prison there. We are in debt to 2043. The prison is by far our largest customer, with $340,000, over a third of total revenue. Clio would eventually go out of existence if the prison were to close. We are waging hundreds of millions of dollars on something that is not guaranteed to work.

2014 gubernatorial candidate and corrections officer Stacy George said, “I have a specific plan.” “The problem is not new prison it is understaffing.” “Make everyone who works for ALEA serve three years as a corrections officer.” Sheriff’s offices make new deputies work at the jail before advancing. There was a large corruption problem. Commissioner Dunn has done a good job of cleaning it up, now we are understaffed because of that.

George asked, “At what point does punishment become revenge?” It is costing the state $18,000 to keep these men locked up. Many of them should be sent home. George blamed former Attorney General Charlie Graddick (D)’s three strikes and life policy for the overcrowding issue. Stacy George is the legislative liaison for the Alabama Correctional Organization.

The Committee has postponed voting on SB170.


Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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In Case You Missed It

House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley



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.

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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.


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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison



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.

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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.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison



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.

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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.

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House OKs bill to clarify consulting contracts by state legislators

Brandon Moseley



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.”

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

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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