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Tuesday committee vote to decide future of prison construction plan

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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 By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — An up-or-down vote in committee Tuesday will decide the future of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, an $845-million plan two years in the making that would authorize the construction of three new regional men’s prisons and a new women’s prison.

The House Judiciary Committee will meet Tuesday morning to take up Senate Bill 302, which would authorize the plan. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward, said Monday he gives the bill a 50-50 chance of passing.

“It’s pretty split,” Ward told APR. “You’ve got so many factions down there in the House. What will come out tomorrow will probably be something between our plan and the worst-case scenario, which is nothing.”

The Senate passed a compromise version of the bill in March, but the House committee and the full House still have to pass the plan. Lawmakers have been working for nearly a month to revamp the proposal before it gets to the floor.

The new plan would include the three 4,000-bed regional prisons that were in the Senate version but would also add back in authorization for a new 1,200-bed women’s prison to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, a portion of the plan which was removed in the final Senate version.

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A local option would allow counties and municipalities to bid to take out their own bonds to construct the three men’s prisons, which would cost about $215 million apiece. If no counties or cities step up to take the prisons, ADOC would be authorized to move forward with taking out $645 million revenue bond to finance up to three prisons. There could also be a mix between local-backed and ADOC-back prison bonds.

Most other existing state prisons would be closed once the three new men’s prisons are completed. ADOC’s initial proposal for the APTI would have consolidated 14 of Alabama’s 16 major correctional facilities into the four new prisons.

Another $200 million in ADOC bonds would be used to build the new women’s facility to replace Tutwiler and renovate existing men’s facilities. The total bond is capped at $845 million.

Though the plan is an attempt to address overcrowding and systemic understaffing problems, it doesn’t completely alleviate them. The plan would reduce overcrowding from about 175 percent capacity to a little more than 125 percent capacity over the next five years — and only if all three prisons are built.

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“If we don’t do something soon, the federal courts are going to end up ordering us to pay millions of dollars anyway,” Ward said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

The Federal Judiciary has shown increasing impatience with Alabama’s prison system. In recent years, conditions at Tutwiler Prison were so bad that a Federal court ruled them unconstitutional and ordered improvements. The US Department of Justice launched a larger investigation in 2015.

ADOC is also facing a looming ruling in a mental-health lawsuit filed by the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC also has a medical lawsuit that is waiting to go to trial in the next year.

But SPLC Legal Director Ronda Brownstein said the proposal would not solve the pressing legal issues of included in their lawsuits that are pending in federal court.

“If we had unlimited resources in Alabama, I would be all for this, but every dollar we spend on this takes money away from other things that we need to be doing,” Brownstein said. “We need to be hiring more corrections officers and mental health staff.”

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.

The State prison population has decreased from about 27,000 after the Legislature passed sentencing reform measures in 2013. The addition new prison could alleviate the overcrowding problem over time, proponents have said.

But overcrowding isn’t the most pressing problem to some legislators. Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, said ADOC should take a more holistic approach, raising salaries for corrections officers and tackling mismanagement and alleged corruption in the prison system.

“We need to address the management issues, the corruption issues that we hear about: the drugs, the gangs, the violence,” Farley said. “Let’s spend whatever we’ve got to spend correcting that and then plan B would be what do we need to do to expand some of these facilities or which is the very worst that needs to be rebuilt.”

It isn’t clear whether the proponents have the votes they need to pass the plan. APR tallies suggest the plan may have trouble getting out of committee.

If it even makes it out of the House, lawmakers would only have a few days to get the plan back up to the Senate, through conference committee and passed there again. That might be a tight squeeze with only five legislative days left.

Opponents have asked Gov. Kay Ivey to call a special session to address prison construction.

By consolidating the prisons into three mega-facilities, the State could save $47 million a year — enough to finance the bond payments — and wouldn’t need as many guards, ADOC officials have said.

The plan would be financed through revenue bonds, which could only be used for capital investment such as building new facilities and renovating existing ones. The revenue bonds could not be used for hiring new staff or stocking the prisons with new health equipment.

To spend more money on corrections officers and security at existing prisons would require an increase in ADOC appropriations within the General Fund. The General Fund has been facing deficits for years, and lawmakers have shown no appetite for increasing taxes.

“Here’s what I would say to them: Where was their amendment to the General Fund to do that?” Ward asked. “If they’re serious about that proposal, why didn’t they offer the needed amendments to the General Fund. So I don’t know how serious their idea is.”

But paying back the revenue bonds would take up a chunk of ADOC’s appropriations, limiting their resources available for other uses. ADOC officials say they will save enough from consolidation to finance the bonds without affecting existing appropriations. This is a way to improve the prison system without raising taxes, proponents have argued.

“You can’t pay for salaries with a bond issue,” Ward said. “I keep hearing that we could use this money in a better way. Not this money. The only way you can use bond money is for one-time construction.”

That idea all depends on if the savings actually happen. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency was formed in 2015 out of the consolidation of three state law enforcement agencies and nine divisions.

That consolidation was expected to save more than $250 million over a decade, but those savings haven’t been actualized. ALEA requested a $60 million budget increase in January after a 30 percent drop in state troopers on the highways since 2009.

The savings projection has been confirmed by the Legislative Fiscal Office, the Department of Finance and the National Institute of Corrections, but that’s not sure-fire.

But the overall size of the proposed bond issue is just too large for some legislators.

“If an outside agency like the National Institue of Corrections were to come in here and give us a full assessment then I’ll support it,” Farley said. “I just don’t think the people we have looking at it now have the expertise to tell the taxpayers that we need to put you in debt $50 million a year for the next 30 years.”


Email Chip Brownlee 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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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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