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The bumpy road to a prison bill

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

When Sen. Cam Ward left Montgomery for a trip to DC on Wednesday evening, there seemed to be a tentative agreement among Senate Republicans and various lobbyists, special interest groups and public watchdogs on a prison deal.

That agreement, spelled out in a new bill Ward floated to the media late Wednesday, cut the number of prisons being constructed from four to three, reduced the overall cost by $25 million and, most importantly to the bill’s survival, it removed the alternative delivery method and ensured the entire project would be publicly bid at every stage.

After more than a year of haggling, everyone seemed placated and ready to move forward.

Then it all fell apart.

“I’m not really sure what happened,” Ward said Thursday morning. “I just got back into town and I got hit with this first thing.”

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At a Republican caucus meeting earlier Thursday morning, the political will had among Ward’s fellow Republicans had suddenly vanished, and in its place was a new prison bill. This bill did virtually nothing – it committed just $100 million in state money to renovating existing facilities and promised lease agreements with counties that opted to secure bonds to renovate or build prisons as part of the project.

That left Ward in the awkward position of asking Democrats for help passing his $775 million compromise bill out of the Senate Judiciary committee. Ward got the votes to move that bill to the Senate floor, but it was clear he had lost momentum and that the deal – so promising hours earlier – was all but dead.

The reasons for its death were as common as they were impractical. Sometime between Wednesday and Thursday, lawmakers came to realize that the new bill would be an instrument they created, and when the campaign ads started up, it would be their names tied to a mountain of state debt – for prisons.

Suddenly, the need for even three large facilities seemed to lessen. Lawmakers convinced themselves that the threat of a Federal takeover wasn’t imminent, and that even if one did occur, new US Attorney General and former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions would step in and save his home state from massive expenses.

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Of course, that’s not the reality, and the bearer of that reality resides in a Federal courtroom in Montgomery. Judge Myron Thompson currently holds Alabama’s future budgets in the palm of his hand, as he decides a couple of cases dealing with Alabama’s overcrowding and mental health care in prisons.

More than a decade ago, long before capacity reached its reported current levels of near 200 percent, Thompson called Alabama’s prisons, and the overcrowding that existed even then, “a ticking timebomb.” And during the recent prisoner mental health trial, a prisoner who served as a witness in the case committed suicide and Thompson ordered Alabama to provide additional monitoring. So, the prospects for winning these cases are not good. Alabama is likely to be forced to spend millions to reduce overcrowding, employ additional guards and bring in more mental health experts.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ward’s plan is the only pathway forward either, because it only really addresses one of those issues – the overcrowding.

The Hybrid

A number of people around the State House believe the prison plan that has the best chance for approval is a hybrid plan that cuts costs for new facilities and provides more money for renovating local prisons and hiring additional corrections officers.

Such a plan accomplishes two big things: it lessens the total upfront price of the project – allowing lawmakers to tell their district voters, “See how much I saved you from what the governor wanted to spend?” – and it also creates jobs in a number of counties.

(No matter how many times lawmakers say the prison bill shouldn’t be thought of as a jobs bill, it certainly wouldn’t hurt their feelings if voters thought of it that way.)

In addition, a hybrid – if done the right way – would receive the backing of many sheriffs around the State, and most of them would help push it.

As it stands now, those sheriffs are mostly pushing against the current proposals.

That’s because the current bill takes money, workers and resources out of their counties. Whether sheriffs want to admit it or not, they often find themselves relying heavily on prison labor to get things done and pay bills. Those prisoners have historically been so valuable to the local sheriffs that the sheriffs have entered into agreements with the State to house the prisoners for free.

“These prisoners can sometimes more than make up for what they cost to house through their work,” Clarke County Sheriff Ray Norris said. “The truth is, though, we can house them cheaper than what they’re talking about (at State prisons) and provide better oversight of them. It’s a better overall system for everyone.”

Norris and a number of other sheriffs around the State like a prison plan pitched by Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow. That plan would see the State devote between $30 and $35 per prisoner per day (versus the $42 per day Alabama Department of Corrections says it spends) to county prisons and have them sign agreements to house specific numbers of prisoners. After DOC determines how many beds that gets them, lawmakers would spend money only to build or renovate prisons to make up the difference.

“It makes sense all the way around,” Norris said. “You have smaller populations of prisoners which is going to reduce the violence. We have more guards watching over them. It makes it easier on the prisoner’s family to come see him and hopefully keep that bond they need on the outside. And they can learn a trade they can take with them.

Lack of Trust

Sheriffs and others around the State are having a difficult time trusting the Governor and State lawmakers on the prison bill, primarily because those bills — Bentley’s $800 million plan and Ward’s $775 million substitute bill — don’t make practical sense to them. And also because they’ve seen more than a little shadiness out of the State to get those proposals off the ground.

For example, several sheriffs, and other sources who spoke with APR, said there have been instances over the past year of DOC moving prisoners from county facilities to state-run facilities in order to beef up the number of prisoners at State facilities. That’s also why so many GOP lawmakers see overcrowding as a manufactured crisis.

Currently, sheriffs estimate that there are hundreds, maybe into the thousands, of beds available at county facilities that could ease the overcrowding issue. But they’re not being used.

In addition, the State has more than doubled the estimated cost of housing those prisoners in their facilities, telling lawmakers that it costs over $40 per day per prisoner. Yet, a lawsuit filed by county sheriffs in the mid-2000s resulted in the State agreeing to pay just $15 per prisoner – up from a paltry $1.75 it had previously paid the counties.

That lawsuit came after a 2003 court order that told State DOC officials to get busy moving prisoners from overcrowded county jails to State prisons. Now, a large number of county facilities are under capacity.

“It seems like a made-up crisis to me a little bit,” said one sheriff, who spoke to APR on condition of anonymity. “We have beds available. We’ve asked to house more State prisoners. The State took the option away. What sense does that make?”

The Cure

At the Senate Judiciary Committee’s public hearing on the prison bill, a current prison warden spoke. She said she stands just 5-foot-2, yet on some days in her jail, because of a lack of staff and too many prisoners, she has found herself working with one other guard to keep an eye on 2,000 prisoners.

That’s a recipe for disaster, and disaster within Alabama’s prisons has been common of late. From frequent stabbings and prisoner deaths to the kidnapping of a warden to the death of a guard recently, the problems are obvious.

But what’s less obvious to everyone involved is how a prison plan to build three or four large prisons either solves your issues or fits into the reform plan the Legislature put in place a couple of years ago. The cornerstone of that plan was sentence reform, which Ward said recently has already dropped the population from around 27,000 to fewer than 22,000.

“So, if the numbers are declining that dramatically, why are you building prisons that will be mostly empty?” a lobbyist recently asked APR. “Why wouldn’t you utilize the facilities you currently have operating to handle the overflow and renovate the existing structures?”

As Norris pointed out, another advantage of utilizing county facilities is that those jails can begin taking in prisoners almost immediately. The new prisons, however, won’t be finished for years.

“In most of our jails, we could start taking in more prisoners this afternoon,” Norris said.

That solution also provides one other key component: because it’s cheaper, it frees up money to address the two other concerns in Alabama’s prisons. The state could start hiring and adequately paying prison guards, and it could finally address the egregious manner in which it has failed to care for mentally ill inmates.

The Conclusion

The only answer to be taken from any of this is simple: there is no clear, easy pathway forward on this topic.

While the $775 million plan addresses most concerns, it doesn’t come close to solving them all. Morrow’s plan also has its flaws – namely that there is no consensus among the sheriffs and establishing the need and timetable for individual county jail renovations is almost impossible.

“This is what happens when you let a problem like this sit unaddressed and not cared about,” a lobbyist said. “Now, every way forward will be unpleasant and a pitfall.”

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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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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