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Bill Britt

Gov. Ivey to move forward with $900 million prison plan

Bill Britt and Chip Brownlee

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is poised to move forward with a plan to build three new prisons and invest more in prison staff as the state’s aging and overpopulated correctional system faces continued calls for reform from both activists and the federal courts.

Ivey announced a broad outline of her plan during a press conference Tuesday at the State Capitol in Montgomery, echoing her previous calls for an “Alabama solution” to an “Alabama problem.” The estimated costs to build three new men’s prisons, according the Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, is around $900 million.

Ivey’s new plan also calls for three new regional facilities, one of which will have additional space for centralized health and mental health care facilities for special needs populations. Each new facility will also include space for educational and vocational training programs.

The Department of Corrections is preparing a request for proposals, and contractors will be asked for bids to build the three new regional men’s prisons. The decision to build the new prisons comes after ADOC hired a project management team to assess the prison system’s needs over the last two years.

By releasing a request for proposals, Ivey said Alabama will be able to see for the first time an accurate estimate of how much it will cost to build the facilities. Estimates in bills pushed in the Legislature in 2016 and 2017 ranged from $800 to $1.5 billion, depending on how long it took the state to repay revenue bonds used to finance the construction.

Ivey shifted from reports over the last few months that she was considering a build-and-lease plan to construct the new prisons. That plan would’ve allowed private entities to finance and build the prisons while the state leased them back. The plan could’ve been issued by Ivey alone, and it wouldn’t have needed legislative approval.

The governor’s plan will now seek some sort of legislative approval and input, though it’s unclear whether she is still considering a build-and-lease plan.

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“I make a promise to you that part of this next step is to publicly provide the real costs we receive from contractors and to work closely with the Legislature to determine the most cost-effective way of moving forward. Whatever we do will be the best and most fiscally responsible decision for the state of Alabama.”

Ivey pushed back against assertions that special interests have had a hand in her corrections plan.

“That could not be further from the truth,” Ivey wrote in an op-ed Tuesday.

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At this point, it seems Ivey’s plan is a toned-down and re-worked version of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative pushed by former Gov. Robert Bentley and Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Bentley’s plan called for three new, 4,000-bed regional men’s prisons and a new 3,000-bed women’s prison.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers who opposed that $800 million plan referred to the regional prisons as “mega prisons” and criticized a design-build component that would’ve meant bidding only one contractor to both design and build the prisons. Lawmakers said at the time that the design-build method skirted the state’s bid laws, which typically require a bidding process for both the design and the construction phases of building projects.

Ward and Bentley’s plan died two years in a row in the state Legislature. In 2017, the House stalled on the bill and it didn’t make it to Ivey’s desk in time to sign. She considered calling a special session that year to address prison construction, though she didn’t end up doing it.

The plan still may not avoid criticism from legislators who worry that consolidating the state’s 13 remaining major men’s correctional facilities into three major regional facilities could harm local economies.

Ivey and Dunn have repeatedly argued that upgrading and renovating the 13 correctional facilities to meet minimum required standards would cost just as much, if not more, than building new facilities.

“Our existing facilities need $750 million in maintenance alone,” Ivey wrote. “Last year, we closed the Draper Correctional Facility, a 79-year-old prison, because it was simply too costly to repair. Without costly maintenance, many other facilities may require closing as well. Repairing these facilities that do not meet the needs of today’s criminal justice system would be wasteful and ineffective.”

Ivey’s announcement comes as the federal courts continue mulling conditions in Alabama’s prisons. A lawsuit over mental health care in Alabama’s prisons brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center ended with Federal Judge Myron Thompson ruling conditions to be “horrendously” and constitutionally “inadequate.”

Thompson ordered the state to nearly double the number of correctional officers over the next two years.

Thompson ruled Monday in another part of that lawsuit that the treatment of inmates in segregated isolation is unconstitutional and violates the Eighth Amendment. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found the Alabama Department of Corrections to be “deliberately indifferent” to the treatment of the prisoners in isolation.

In 2014, conditions at Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women were so bad that a federal court ruled them unconstitutional and ordered improvements.

A second phase of the SPLC health care lawsuit is set to go to trial soon and could end with more federally-mandated improvements to the system.

Ivey said Tuesday that she plans to propose a budget that includes a $31 million funding increase for ADOC so the state can hire 500 new correctional officers to comply with the federal court order. The budget increase would also fund a pay increase for security personnel to make their salaries competitive.

“In December, we saw our first increase in the number of correctional officers in years,” Ivey wrote. “With a rising retention rate, we can begin adding to our officer ranks, rather than simply maintaining our current staffing levels. This is a difficult task, but because of the commitment from members of the Legislature, we are now well on our way to addressing our staffing challenges.”

The Legislature last year provided $86 million in additional funding to the department over two years to retain new staff for medical and mental health services and to reduce the rate of turnover among correctional staffing.

Lawmakers have taken other steps in recent years to reduce Alabama’s notorious prison overcrowding. Since criminal sentencing reform passed in 2015, overcrowding has dropped significantly from 200 percent to about 160 percent. But Ivey said that overcrowding rate is still too high.

Ivey said she fears that the federal courts could do like they did in California and order thousands of prisoners released.

“Some estimate this order resulted in the release of more than 40,000 inmates,” Ivey wrote. “Following the release of these inmates, one study into the impact of this mass release called the increases in crime rates ‘alarming.’ So, our public safety also demands this investment.”

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite

Bill Britt

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Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.

Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.

If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.

As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.

Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.

Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.

Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.

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All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.

HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”

In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.

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Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.

Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”

An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.

Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.

Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.

It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.

One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.

There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.

Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | PCI’s billion dollar plan raises questions

Bill Britt

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Over the last few months, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has flooded the state with an advertising campaign touting a billion-dollar package labeled “Winning for Alabama.”

How the plan benefits Alabama is a fuzzy moving target, but there are many advantages for the tribe.

Beyond giving PCI a monopoly over Las Vegas-style gaming, it also cements PCI’s tribal status.

Since 2009, PCI and other tribes federally recognized after 1934, have lobbied Congress for a “Carcieri fix,” to guarantee they are safe from losing federal recognition and with it the right to operate tribal gaming.

In Carcieri v. Salazar, 555 U.S. 379 (2009), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the phrase of tribes “now under Federal jurisdiction” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, referred only to those tribes that were federally recognized when the act was passed. PCI wasn’t recognized until 1984.

A compact with the state would end the threat  that hangs over PCI and its billion-dollar casino empire in Alabama.

Over the past several years, U.S. Congressman Bradley Byrne—who is now running for Senate—has pushed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to protect the tribe from any challenges under the Carcieri ruling. Byrne’s efforts have been unsuccessful due to resistance from Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby.

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Poarch Band of Creek Indians face uncertainty

Byrne saw his 2018 legislation falter when Shelby made it known the bill would not get a hearing in the Senate.

At the time, APR contacted Shelby’s office for comment, “Senator Shelby does not support the bill and has no plans to do so in the future,” wrote Shelby’s communications director, Blair Taylor. Likewise, APR reached out to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office where then-spokesperson, Daniel Sparkman, told APR, “Governor Ivey has no plans to write such a letter,” encouraging Senator Shelby to support a Land Reaffirmation Act.

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A compact with the state would likely end any further concerns over a Carcieri fix.

While PCI is courting voters and lawmakers, ultimately, it is Gov. Ivey, who has the authority to negotiate a compact with the tribe. At this juncture, Ivey’s thinking isn’t known, but given her history, she will look hard and long at any gaming plan that requires her signature to enter into a compact with PCI.

PCI’s proposal raises several questions, not the least of which are “can the state give the tribe a monopoly over table gaming, and how much money will the state actually receive from PCI’s plan?”

The proposal is vague in specifics and the math is hazy  at best, but according to PCI’s website and promotional materials, the plan includes: “$725 Million in combined license and compact fees from existing properties and two new locations, PLUS $350 Million in projected tax revenue and revenue share from gaming, including sportsbook and table games, PLUS.”

For the one-time payment and projected future tax revenue, PCI wants the state to enter into a compact with the tribe and also give them exclusive rights over table gaming throughout the state. That is giving a lot for little return when in fact a state lottery with all the bells and whistles could produce around $400 million in tax revenue for the state without giving anyone a monopoly.

Opinion | There’s a better gambling deal to be made

All tribal gaming falls under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which lists the different categories of gambling permitted by tribal entities.

Currently, PCI operates class II gaming in Alabama.

Class II gaming, according to IGRA, are:

“Bingo, pull-tabs and other similar games, including non-banking card games not prohibited by state law.”

IGRA states that PCI can only offer games that are “not prohibited by state law.”

The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that electronic bingo machines are illegal. However, PCI offers electronic bingo at its facilities in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.

IGRA also states, “Expressly excluded from Class II gaming are banking card games, such as blackjack or slot machines of any kind.”

To offer blackjack, roulette, or other table games, PCI would need a compact with the state, which must be negotiated by the state’s governor, which presently is Ivey.

Class III games are according to IGRA: “All forms of gaming that are not included under Class I or Class II, such as blackjack and slot machines.”

Other provisions of Class III conclude that “the games are located in a state that permits gaming for any purpose by any person.”

This section of IGRA would seem to prevent the state from granting PCI exclusivity over Class III Las Vegas-style gaming, but this is a question that will be answered by attorneys.

PCI has done very well since it became a de facto gaming monopoly in the state as a result of then-Gov. Bob Riley’s bingo wars.

Year after year, PCI and its Republican allies in the state Legislature have killed any lottery or gaming plans that threatened the tribe’s monopoly.

The billion-dollar plan is seen as tempting to some lawmakers, but its success or failure rests with Gov. Ivey, who is responsible if a compact with the tribe is to be negotiated.

Many unanswered questions must be considered before the state should entertain PCI’s billion-dollar plan; perhaps most importantly, how does Carcieri v. Salazar affect the tribe’s federal standing and what are the benefits for the state?

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Bill Britt

Opinion | PCI supported President Trump’s rivals but want state Republican to do their bidding

Bill Britt

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In 2016, Alabamians overwhelmingly supported Donald J. Trump for president. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, however, put the majority of their money behind his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

PCI gave Clinton $150,000 in 2016, but only $25,000 to Trump. Likewise, in 2012, PCI contributed $135,000 to Barack Obama. In both elections, the Poarch Creeks sided with Trump’s nemeses.

Even after Clinton’s loss, PCI donated $203,400 to the DNC Services Corp./Dem. National Committee.

In fact, of the 13 most substantial contributions made by the tribe in federal elections over the last several years, eleven donations went to Democrat candidates or organizations while only two went to Republican causes.

If money is the mother’s milk of politics, then PCI’s top donations are nourishing Democrats nationally and starving Republicans.

In a pro-Trump state, the Poarch Creeks —who backed Hillary for president—are asking Republican lawmakers to give them a state-sanctioned monopoly over gaming.

Principled Republicans might see a problem with giving so much power to a group whose money goes to candidates with values so diametrically opposed to their own.

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Currently, PCI gives generously to Alabama Republicans, but once those conservative lawmakers turn over gambling in the state to the tribe, is it not possible that they will then switch back to their political roots and support Clinton-type Democrats for state offices?

PCI stokes Alabama Republicans for now, but what happens when they no longer need them to do their bidding?

Just last year, PCI contributed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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Money from PCI to the DSCC will go to giving Chuck Schumer control over the U.S. Senate while their support for DCCC will increase Democrats in the House.

“DCCC is the only political committee in the country whose principal mission is to support Democratic House candidates every step of the way,” according to the group’s website.

Do Alabama Republicans not realize that PCI is supporting the very group that elected candidates they claim to despise like AOC and the squad?

In 2018, DCCC’s campaign contributions flipped the U.S. House of Representatives, giving control of the chamber to Nancy Pelosi. In return, Pelosi led House Democrats to impeach President Trump.

Isn’t it hypocritical to loathe Democrats on the one hand while accepting donations from their patrons with the other?

Of PCI’s largest contributions, only two went to Republicans, one was in 2014, to the Congressional Leadership Fund and the other was to John Boehner for Speaker in 2015.

State Republicans howl against Anti-Trump and Pro Socialist Democrats but line-up to support PCI which has given maximum donations to Nancy Pelosi.

Perhaps PCI gave Trump chump change because, as a businessman casino owner, he dared point out the unfair advantages tribal gaming has over private operators. But maybe they are afraid the Trump administration will enforce the law which says PCI can’t operate any games that are illegal in the state.

Obama didn’t enforce the law and Clinton surely would not have. Maybe Trump will.

PCI, for now, is cozy with state Republicans, but their national support for Democrats should serve as a warning that things can change.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | MLK Day: A time for change

Bill Britt

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Today, as the nation celebrates MLK Day, Alabama still tacks Robert E. Lee onto its observances. But it’s time to end that practice as a new generation deserves to see a better Alabama.

Alabama Code, Title 1. General Provisions § 1-3-8 enumerates the state’s legal public holidays, which lists the third Monday in January as an observance for Martin Luther King Jr., and also Robert E. Lee.

How long will our state’s leaders cling to the past? Isn’t it time to put away the false equivalency between King and Lee?

Both men were flawed, but while Lee’s reputation has diminished with time, King’s has grown.

Lee may have once represented a proud South, but today he is seen as a symbol of bloody slavery.

Over time, King’s legacy has flourished and now stands as a beacon of hope to millions, not just in the United States, but around the world.

In her 2019 Inaugural Address, Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged, “Thankfully, the Alabama we live in today – the Alabama we love – has changed with the times and, in most instances, this change has been for the better.

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But we would be less than honest with each other if we did not acknowledge that change has not always come easily. Standing here on Dexter Avenue, we are reminded of two different chapters in Alabama history: a time when the Civil War raged and 90 years later when the Civil Rights movement was inspired.

It is important for all of us to acknowledge our past; after all, it was at a pulpit just down the street that Doctor Martin Luther King Junior so powerfully taught us how to confront struggles with honesty, courage, and love.

Having learned from the past, let’s now turn our focus to the future, which is filled with so much hope and opportunity.”

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Sadly, some in our state can’t admit Alabama’s  past, much less let go of the legacies that still haunt the state.

That Lee shares the day with King is a relic from our not so honorable history.

Almost immediately after King’s assassination in 1968, there were calls for a holiday commemorating his January 15 birthday, a struggle that would be fraught with conflict for 15 years.

President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making MLK Day a national holiday on November 2, 1983, but even he wasn’t convinced that it was best for the nation as he said a King holiday was “based on an image, not reality,” according to a letter he wrote to former Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. of New Hampshire.

After Reagan’s remarks were made public, he called King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to apologize for any misunderstanding about his comment, according to a 1983 report by the New York Times.

Up until the passage of MLK Day legislation, North Carolina U.S. Senator Jesse Helms railed against the measure, accusing King of being a Communist sympathizer. Helms threatened to filibuster, tried to open King’s sealed FBI files and estimated that the cost of a new national holiday would be $12 billion in lost productivity.

Still, today, even in the halls of the Alabama State House, Helms’ argument is still being made.

Efforts to erect a monument to King on Dexter avenue are fought with the same rhetoric and passion that fueled Helms, except today, they are mostly in whispers-tones and code-speaks.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and a host of the founding generation’s notables were slave owners and men with questionable private lives. Still, nevertheless, they are celebrated for their accomplishments, not chased for their failings.

Turbulent water running under the bridge that divides our nation along racial lines is stirred by those who would convince us that they are deep, but they are not deep only muddy making us fear to cross.

King’s legacy is the embodiment of nonviolent activism for civil rights, which has been replicated on nearly every continent around the globe.

After the King Holiday Bill was signed, Coretta Scott King said, “This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday.”

It is time to change because MLK Day cannot be a people’s holiday in Alabama, as long as it’s a Lee holiday, too.

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