By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million prison construction initiative has raised some eyebrows among lawmakers at the Alabama State House, prompting the proponent of the Governor’s plan to consider a smaller alternative.
Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the bill authorizing the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative in the Senate, said Thursday that he would consider an alternative: perhaps a $500 million plan instead of the original $800 million plan.
“It’s possible,” Ward told APR. “We’re negotiating that now.”
The Judiciary Committee will meet next week, Ward said, at which time a substitute bill will be voted on. The bill would be a compromise “almost everyone can agree on,” Ward said.
“We’re going to meet with all of the parties, those who are for it and those who are against it, and let them have their say,” Ward said. “That’s why we took another week on it.”
The Committee addressed the current version of the bill Wednesday during a public hearing but there was no vote. The hearing saw presentations from Jeff Dunn, Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, and several others including many who were against the plan.
Detractors, which included Committee members and representatives from various legal organizations, questioned the plan’s bidding process and whether it would actually solve the problems — overcrowding, understaffing, violence and mental health care — facing the State’s prisons.
Ward said they made some good points, which is why he is considering a compromise plan.
Where are the prisons going?
Bullock County Commissioner Ron Smith raised a concern common among many legislators whose districts include State facilities: Where will the new prisons go and what prisons will be closed? The plan calls for 14 of Alabama’s 17 prisons to be closed and consolidated into three new men’s prisons. One prison would be for women.
“Bullock County Correctional is our Hyundai,” Smith said. “Keep our Hyundai in Bullock County. Please put us at the top of the list. If not, leave us how we are.”
Another local official, Clio, Alabama, Mayor Jack Pelfrey, told those at the committee meeting Wednesday that his town had large debts from financing water and sewer projects to a State prison there.
“We are in debt until 2043,” Pelfrey said. “The prison is by far our largest customer.”
Ward said he was sympathetic to those concerns.
ADOC will fulfill contracts like infrastructure agreements with the counties that currently have prisons and there are plans to work with existing correctional officers to relocate them to the new prisons in their region.
But prisons shouldn’t be used as economic development projects, he said.
“The criminal justice system needs to work based upon what works for corrections, rehabilitation and public safety,” Ward said. “George Wallace used prisons as a tool to get votes and spur economic development. But I understand those communities’ concerns, and I’m with them.”
Overcrowding, understaffing and possible savings
The plan would authorize the Department of Corrections to issue an $800 million bond to construct three new 4,000-bed men’s prisons and a new women’s prison. It’s the brainchild of ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn and is Bentley’s top priority during this legislative session.
The Governor’s plan is an attempt to address overcrowding and systemic understaffing problems, but it doesn’t completely alleviate them. The plan would only reduce overcrowding from about 200 percent capacity to about 125 percent capacity over the next five years.
Alabama’s prisons currently house about 23,000 inmates in a system built mostly in the 1970s for a max of 13,000 inmates, according to the most recent ADOC statistical reports. Bentley’s plan would only increase capacity to 16,000 inmates if the planned number of existing prisons are closed.
The population has decreased from about 27,000 after the Legislature passed sentencing reform measures in 2013. Ward has said he favors an “all of the above” approach, which could include more sentencing reform.
The federal judiciary has shown 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 class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over mental health conditions at Alabama’s prisons went to trial in December.
The SPLC, 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 the 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.”
The bond would end up costing the State about $1.5 billion over the 30-year repayment period. The Department of Corrections says operational savings from the new prisons would save the State about $50 million a year — enough to finance the bond’s annual payment, according to independent reports ADOC commissioned.
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 the two independent studies.
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, proponents say.
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.
Ward told APR that he has asked the Legislative Fiscal Office for an additional report on estimated savings. He said he would have the full report by next week’s committee hearing and the findings will be presented.
To bid or not to bid?
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, another bid for the construction contract and the contractors then subcontract to smaller components of the construction.
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.
“The reason we want to do it this — and why most states other than us do it this way — is because you have one bid, as opposed to two people running down different tracks who sometimes don’t communicate, which causes cost overruns,” Ward said. “You’re still bidding it, but you’re just not bidding every single piece of it. It saves money this way.”
The nontraditional bidding process has thrown some people off, but 49 other states and the District of Columbia have used it before, Ward said, and have had successful results.
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A Montgomery-based contractor, Caddell Construction, built a design-build prison near Aliceville, Alabama, in 2009.
It’s been used successfully in Alabama, as well, just not by the State government. A federal women’s prison near Aliceville, Alabama, in south Pickens County, was built in 2009 using a design-build method.
The federal correctional facility was built by Montgomery-based contractor Caddell Construction for a cost of $192 million, according to Caddell. It houses more than 1,600 inmates, an eighth of all women in federal prisons.
Is there a watchdog?
Under existing State statutes, the votings members of the State authority responsible for overseeing the issuance of the bond and construction of the prisons consists of the Governor, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections and the Director of Finance — all within the Governor’s cabinet.
The prison construction bill in the Senate would add a House and a Senate member to the board. But that may not be enough to stop the executive branch from jostling a plan through authority, which has a quorum of three members.
“The Legislature cannot have a majority on the authority because that gets into the separation of powers. They can’t approve the money and then spend the money,” Ward said. “We can add other members to the authority, though. We can the Treasurer and maybe some other executive branch members, but we can’t have a majority of the Legislature on there.”
The three members of the authority, under current statutes, have the power to acquire land, construct and lease the facilities and issue bonds up to $60 million. The bill would give the new five-member authority the ability to issue up to $800 million in bonds for new prisons.
No construction budgets have been submitted to the Legislature yet. They are simply voting on a broad outline of the plan. ADOC and the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority will have the final say on the plan, under current statute and the proposed plan.
Several legislators have been concerned about the oversight of the authority and what power would be given to the Legislature to halt any plans it does not approve of if the bill authorizing the basics of the plan passes.
The bill expands the size of the permanent legislative committee that provides oversight to the Department of Corrections from eight members to 12 members.
The Senate bill would require a report from ADOC on the status of the plans every legislative session, and the Legislature would retain the power to shut down the process if they passed new legislation, Ward said.
“The key is if you have the transparency and oversight that means the public is going to know how it’s being spent,” Ward said. “If it’s reported that this money is being misspent we can actually roll it all back with legislation.”
The future of the prison construction plan
Even with the high-ranking support from Ward, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, the Governor and ADOC Commissioner Dunn, the bill has not had an easy path this legislative session.
“Let’s look at alternatives,” Rep. Johhny Mack Morrow, D-Redbay, said earlier this month. “Let’s don’t sink into $50 million a year debt. We’re going to put our grandchildren $50 million a year.”
Several legislators have proposed alternatives to the plan. The alternative proposed by Morrow and Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, would call for the State to contract with county and municipal jails to house State inmates. They say that option would be cheaper than housing inmates in State prisons and wouldn’t require a large bond issue.
In January 2015, the Alabama Department of Corrections had contracts with nine county jails to house 330 inmates at $15 per day. In total, the contracts cost $1.8 million in the 2015 fiscal year. ADOC also contracted with the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility in Columbiana to house 700 inmates at $32 per day.
After budget reductions last year, ADOC canceled the contracts with the county jails, pulling the inmates in the county jails back into the State prison system. A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the pullbacks were to mitigate the budget reductions.
No single alternative has seemed to stick out, though. Disagreements over the prison construction plan are broad. Some are concerned about the location of the new prisons, others the consolidation and others, still, the design-build construction and bidding method.
Ward said he wanted to give those opposed to the bill the opportunity to present their alternatives next week before the bill is considered in the committee, and he won’t rush debate on the bill if it makes it to the floor of the Senate.
“The problem last year was people rushed out and basically ran over people,” Ward said. “I am going to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to voice their opinion.”
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 prison bill was debated Wednesday and will be readdressed next Tuesday during a Judiciary Committee meeting. It would require approval from the committee and then passage from the full Senate and then the House.
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.