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Department of Corrections hints at billion dollar prison plan

Bill Britt and Chip Brownlee

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A federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, is similar in style to the types of prisons ADOC has sought to build to replace aging and overcrowded prisons across the state.

At the most recent Legislative Contract Review hearing, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn revealed that the state is planning to build three mega-style prisons at a cost of approximately $1 billion.

Less than two years ago, the Legislature rejected a plan by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to spend approximately $850 million on four new so-called mega-prisons. Dunn appeared before the review committee to secure approval of an extension to a contract with Birmingham-based Hoar Program Management, LLC, to complete a study that would result in a request for proposal to build the three facilities. The taxpayer outlay for Hoar’s work will total nearly $11.5 million.

The Contract Review Committee did not immediately approve the expenditure but has no authority to stop the project beyond 45 days.

Until Dunn’s revelations at the recent contract review meeting, Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration has been quiet about any plans to build new prisons.

In the same week Dunn spoke about needing a billion dollars for new prisons, Ivey informed in-coming lawmakers that raising a fuel tax to pay for infrastructure projects would be her top priority in the 2019 Legislative Session.

When Bentley pushed for four prisons in 2017, the project nearly passed the Legislature, but it is unknown how the Republican super-majority will react to two large projects in one Legislative session.

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The Alabama Department of Corrections originally opened bidding in November 2017 for the contract to hire a team to oversee a comprehensive plan to improve the state’s corrections infrastructure. That was just months after the Bentley-backed plan died in the final days of the legislative session.

The plan was shot down two years in a row during the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions. In 2017, a toned-down version of the plan passed in the Senate but died in the House in the final days of the legislative session.

The death of the prison bill was largely the result of splits between moderate and conservative GOP lawmakers who disagreed over the size of and methods within the plan, which would have authorized three new 4,000-bed regional men’s facilities and a 1,200-bed women’s facility at a cost of about $875 million.

The bill would have authorized a non-tradition design-build bidding process and a $1 billion bond issue, both of which drew the ire of conservatives who had worries about the cost and the bidding process.

Under Bentley’s original plan authorized by the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act (APTI), the almost one billion dollars needed would have been borrowed off the books and controlled by a small group of individuals as part of a government corporation.

Most of the state’s existing facilities would have been shut down once the new prisons were built.

Under Section 14-2-6, the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority governs the financial aspects of the state’s prison system. The Code of Alabama allows the authority to create a public corporation that has the power to issue bonds to build prisons and then lease the prisons it owns to the authority. The public corporation consists of the governor, the commissioner of corrections, the director of finance, the lieutenant governor and the attorney general as determined by Code of Alabama Section 14-2-2 through Section 14-2-6.

Under Section 14-2-6, the board of the authority consists of three members: the governor, who serves as the president of the authority; the ADOC commission, who serves as vice-president; and the director of finance as secretary.

It is unclear how Ivey plans to structure funding for three mega-prisons.

During the contract review meeting, Dunn secured a contract extension for architectural firms Goodwyn Mills & Cawood and the Seay Seay & Litchfield. Seay Seay & Litchfield does not list a specific amount, but Goodwyn Mills & Cawood is being paid $1.95 million for its services.

“ADOC’s approach is to have engineering and architectural services on contract in the event that a need arises,” said Alabama Department of Corrections Public Information Manager Bob Horton. “There are remaining funds on the SS&L contract for anticipated projects, so this is a no cost, time extension contract.”

Horton said the amendment to the Hoar Program Management contract, “will provide needed funding for the Alabama Prison Project Management Team, led by HPM, to continue the development of a comprehensive, long-range prison infrastructure revitalization plan.”

The plan floated in previous years — conceived by ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, pushed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley and sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward in the Senate — was an effort to reduce severe overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons, which has been verging on 200 percent capacity. The severe overcrowding has been declining in recent years after a number of sentencing reform bills went into effect.

But ADOC officials and the plan’s supporters have said new facilities are needed to expand capacity and improve conditions as overcrowding has proven persistent despite the sentencing reform.

Those issues — combined with worsening dilapidation of prisons that were built largely in the 1960s and 1970s, though some opened as long ago as 1939 — have resulted in numerous lawsuits and calls for improvement to the state’s prison infrastructure. Needed maintenance is estimated at $440 million.

Since taking office, Ivey has backed away from Bentley’s plan, though she did consider a special session her first year in office to address the prison construction bill after it failed in the regular Legislative session in 2017.

In her first State of the State Address, Ivey called for more modest methods of improving Alabama’s prisons. Compared to Bentley’s $1 billion, bond-funded plan, Ivey’s proposal, which ended up passing the Legislature last year, moved away from a complete overall of the prison system. Instead, the Legislature allocated a $30 million supplement to the Department of Corrections’ funding for last fiscal year — an increase legislators said at the time was needed to comply with the court decision that mandated changes to medical and mental health care in Alabam’s prisons.

ADOC received more than a 20 percent increase to its budget this year, with the $30 million in additional emergency funding to ADOC’s budget last fiscal year combined with this year’s General Fund allocations.

The new talks of a prison construction plan come as ADOC is struggling to comply with a federal court ruling last year that found Alabama’s prison mental health care to be “horrendously inadequate.” That ruling was the second phase of a three-part lawsuit. The third phase, which challenges medical and dental care in Alabama prisons, has yet to be heard.

Economy

Ivey awards first broadband accessibility grants

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced the first ever grants from Alabama’s Broadband Accessibility Fund.

Residents in seven Alabama communities will be afforded access to high-speed internet thanks to the grants, totaling almost $1.1 million. The fund was created by the Alabama Legislature and signed into reality in March 2018 by Gov. Ivey.

“These grants may only represent one step in terms of providing high-speed internet opportunities to rural Alabama, but it is a monumental leap for a program that has the ability to positively impact the lives of so many people,” Gov. Ivey said. “By supplying these services to rural Alabama, we are also providing these areas the ability to step up in education, health care and economic development.”

The Broadband Accessibility Fund provides funds for service providers to supply high-speed internet services in unincorporated areas or communities with 25,000 people or less. Under the law, awards cannot exceed 20 percent of the total cost of a project.

Ivey placed the administrative duties of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund under the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).

“Providing broadband services to Alabama’s rural communities is in many ways the equivalent of providing those same areas with electricity in early 20th Century,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said. “ADECA and Gov. Ivey share the goal of supplying this essential service to every part of Alabama.”

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Grants awarded and coverage areas are:

Millry Telephone Co. Inc. of Millry will receive $938,306 for expanding coverage to incorporated areas of Gilbertown and Toxey and some unincorporated areas in Choctaw County.

Marcus Cable Associates of Birmingham will receive $11,022 to expand coverage in the East Wood Point area in Moulton.

Marcus Cables Associates of Birmingham will receive $11,063 for expanding coverage in the Emerald Ridge area in Chelsea.

Charter Communications will receive $29,567 to expand coverage to Glen Ridge in southwest Tuscaloosa County.

Charter Communications was awarded $6,017 to provide coverage to the Grace Haven subdivision in Boaz.

Charter Communications received $8,415 to provide coverage in the Vickey Lane area in Boaz.

Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative Inc. will get $74,586 for providing broad band coverage in the Pea Ridge community near Henagar.

Governor Ivey added on social media, “I’m proud to announce that almost $1.1 million in grants are being awarded in an effort to increase broadband access in rural Alabama. This is a major step forward for these 7 communities. A gain for rural Alabama is a gain for our entire state.”

State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) sponsored the legislation to create the Broadband Accessibility Fund.

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Governor

Lieutenant governor picks deputy chief of staff

Chip Brownlee

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The lieutenant governor has selected his deputy chief of staff.

Jess Skaggs, a former Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries administrator, will be Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth’s deputy chief of staff, his office said Thursday.

“As lieutenant governor, I plan for my office to be the most active and engaged in Alabama’s history, and Jess Skaggs has the experience, dedication, and energy necessary to help make that plan a reality,” Ainsworth said. “Jess has a deep desire to serve his fellow Alabamians and to make our state an even better place to live for all of its citizens. I’m happy to have him on my team as we work to provide Alabama with more jobs, better schools, and a higher standard of ethics among its elected officials.”

Skaggs previously served as the deputy commissioner for external affairs in the department.

He spearheaded economic development opportunities for the Department of Agriculture and Industries in that role. He also worked with the Alabama Legislature to promote the state’s agricultural industry and assisted the commissioner with public policy research.

Ainsworth was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Monday. He’ll begin presiding over the Senate when the Legislature returns for the 2019 session in March. Ainsworth said Monday that he plans to focus on economic development, education, job training and government ethics during his term.

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Aside from his experience in the ADAI, Skaggs has other experience in the Legislature that could come in handy for the lieutenant governor. Skaggs worked closely with two senators and five state representatives as the delegation director for the Baldwin County Legislative Office. In that role, he oversaw constituent services, drafted and researched legislation, and coordinated community service grants for the delegation members.

Skaggs worked on the bill that authorized improvements to Gulf State Park and the Lodge at Gulf State Park. That was at the behest of former State Sen. Tripp Pittman, for whom he worked as a legislative aide. Pittman who chaired the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.

A graduate of Huntingdon College with a degree in political science and history, Skaggs has also worked on numerous political campaigns as a general consultant and fundraiser.

He and his wife, Charlanna, an attorney specializing in business law, have three daughters and one son.

 

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Governor

A look at other issues Ivey touched on in inaugural address

Bill Britt

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Among the 2,766 words in Gov. Kay Ivey’s inaugural speech, she addressed a few major themes and some gems and clues on critical issues that she wants to tackle over the next four years.

Roads and bridges were front and center in Ivey’s remarks, as were prisons, but within the text she emphasized other priorities, as well. Among those she mentions is the Port of Mobile, the 2020 Census, health care, rural economic development and statewide access to high-speed internet broadband.

“It can be easy to focus only on the issues that need the most immediate attention – such as education, roads, and prisons,” said Ivey toward the end of her speech. “[B]ut in reality, as we dig in and begin to address these issues, I hope the progress that we make will inspire us to tackle other pressing challenges, such as health care, rural economic development, access to broadband and other important issues.”

Port of Mobile

Ivey is fully committed to a fuel tax to upgrade the state’s infrastructure. She mentions roads and bridges several times during her address, adding ports to the mix in one key sentence. “After all, if we want to compete in a 21st-century global economy, we must improve our infrastructure by investing more in our roads, our bridges, and our ports.”

Alabama’s entire congressional delegation led by U.S. Senator Richard Shelby has endorsed modernization of the Mobile Harbor Federal Navigation Channel. Port modernization is one of the most significant proposed economic development projects in state history.

“The deepening and widening of the Port of Mobile will provide economic development opportunities throughout the entire state of Alabama,” said Sen. Shelby. “This project will create an avenue for exponential growth by facilitating and expanding commerce in the state. I look forward to continuing our work with the Corps as we strive to improve the safety and efficiency of the Port in an increasingly global marketplace.”

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Alabama delegation supports Port of Mobile navigation improvements

Gov. Ivey, like Senator Shelby, understands that modernizing the Port of Mobile would fund significant infrastructure projects.

2020 U.S. Census

Also during her address, Gov. Ivey made a point of stressing the 2020 U.S. Census, which could not only cost the state a congressional seat but much needed federal funding that underpins the state government operations.

“And speaking of our Congressional Delegation, my Administration has already been hard at work with local and state leaders in all 67 counties to begin the tedious — but all-important task of making sure we get an accurate headcount for the upcoming Census,” said Ivey.

As APR’s Brandon Moseley reported, “A recent study by George Washington University indicates that the U.S. government returned more than $1,567 to the state in 2015 for every Alabamian counted in the census. More than 100 federal programs use data collected during census counts as part of their formulas to distribute billions of dollars in federal funding to the states. Those programs include Medicaid, Medicare Part B, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Highway Planning and Construction, and Title 1 Grants to Local Education Agencies. Census-derived data also is used to allocate seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and in legislative redistricting.”

Ivey establishes statewide group to prepare Alabama for maximum Census participation

Health Care

Alabama Republican politicians have ignored the question of Medicaid expansion or rejected it outright, but there are recent signs that resistance is softening.

“Despite what appears to be a solid opposition among Alabama Republicans, some public health experts and hospital officials, including the Alabama Hospital Association, are issuing dire calls for a renewed debate,” reported APR’s Chip Brownlee.

“Medicaid expansion is the one thing the state can do to prevent more hospital closures, loss of jobs, and cutbacks on services,” said Danne Howard, the association’s chief policy officer.

“The association — and the more than 100 individual hospitals it represents across Alabama, many of them rural and some of them teetering on the edge of closing — view the situation as so dire that the association plans to launch a renewed effort early next year to bring the discussion back to the forefront ahead of the 2019 legislative session, when a new class of state lawmakers will take office,” according to Brownlee.

While Ivey only mentions health care in one passage, it is no doubt on her mind.

Should Medicaid expansion be on the 2019 legislative agenda? Experts say it has to be

Broadband Access

In Aug. 2018, Ivey joined Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, and others to promote the benefits of rural broadband and announce that Aderholt has secured $600 million for USDA to increase access to broadband in rural America.

“High-speed, high-quality connectivity is essential to modern day life. It’s a necessary component to education, commerce & quality healthcare,” Ivey said.

Aderholt said that “Securing $600 million for rural broadband wasn’t the end of our mission, but just the beginning. Today, Anne Hazlett- Assistant Secretary for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and I talked about the next steps to bring broadband to all of Alabama.”

Bringing broadband to rural Alabama

Rural Economic Development

PowerSouth President and CEO Gary Smith wrote about the need for rural economic development in September of last year. After enumerating the successful economic opportunities in other parts of the state, he asked, “But what about the rest of Alabama? What about Selma, Eutaw, Greensboro, Andalusia, Greenville, and so many other communities? Those communities have succeeded in the past with textiles, agriculture, military, and lighter industries. However, many of them have fallen on hard times. What will rural Alabama look like in 20 years?”

Smith highlighted three areas that need improvement so that rural communities can be competitive.

“It is clear that good-paying jobs locate in areas with better education, medical care, and communications services,” he wrote.

The Alabama House Rural Caucus is ready to use its energy to gain support for rural cities and counties and can be a great asset to Gov. Ivey. Rural Caucus Chair David Standridge, R-Hayden, recently said, “A vast majority of Alabamians live in rural areas, and it is vital that their voices be heard in the Legislature and throughout all of state government. From rural healthcare to broadband internet access, to improving our roads and bridges, there are serious issues that must be addressed to improve the quality of life of those who live away from major urban centers. I, along with my colleagues, remain committed to protecting rural Alabama.”

Alabama House Rural Caucus re-elects David Standridge as chairman

Toward the end of her speech, Ivey made a plea to all Alabamians to join her in a quest to make the state even better.

“The campaign season and elections are long since behind us. Today, all Alabamians – regardless of party affiliation – have the chance to stand together, united, to help build a brighter future and guarantee that our best days are still in front of us.

And we need everyone to help… teachers, farmers, job creators, health care professionals, law enforcement and the media.”

Ivey’s inaugural address leaves tempting clues on her full agenda.

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Governor

Ivey: Pelham to resign, Bonner to take over as chief of staff

Josh Moon

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Chief of Staff Steve Pelham is officially resigning from Gov. Kay Ivey’s office, a release from the governor’s office said Tuesday morning. Former congressman Jo Bonner will take Pelham’s spot.

Pelham’s resignation was first reported by APR earlier on Tuesday.

“Steve has been a close friend and a trusted confidant for a number of years and has provided our office with outstanding leadership,” Governor Ivey said.  “When we made the transition to the Governor’s Office in 2017, Steve was responsible for leading the effort to make certain the Ivey Administration was up and running on day one.  He has maintained that level of commitment to our organization, structure and focus to details throughout our first term together.”

Bonner joined Ivey’s staff in December as an advisor — a move that seemed to be in preparation for Pelham’s eventual departure.

“Jo brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to our administration,” Ivey said, “and I know we aren’t going to miss a step as my cabinet, staff and I work, every day, to honor the support and confidence the people of Alabama gave us last November.”

Pelham will become the new Vice President for Economic Development and Chief of Staff to Auburn University President Steven Leath in February.

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Department of Corrections hints at billion dollar prison plan

by Bill Britt and Chip Brownlee Read Time: 5 min
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