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Legislature

Prisons are one of the top issues to watch in 2020

Brandon Moseley

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A new decade has begun and the Legislature returns to Montgomery in just 29 days. As the Alabama Legislature begins a new session there are many issues that will confront the state politically in the upcoming year. Nothing is more serious than the issues facing the state and its much maligned prison system.

Governor Kay Ivey (R) and the state Legislature will face a worsening prison crisis when the legislature returns on February 4. The troubled Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is understaffed, overcrowded, violent, and the system has put off maintenance on its crumbling obsolescent infrastructure for over a decade.

The people of Alabama and their legislators have made it abundantly clear over the years that they really do not carry how the state’s prisoners are treated and if it were up to most of the legislators this problem would likely be once again put off for another year; but it might not be up to the state legislature.

The state is in danger of losing control of this situation. The U.S. Department of Justice under began a probe of ADOC under Attorney Generals Loretta Lynch and Jeff Sessions and found that conditions in the prisons are deplorable. Deaths by murder, suicide, and drug overdose are almost a regular occurrence; there are allegations of abuse by ADOC officers, the prisons are filled with contraband including: cell phones, drugs, and weapons; and the DOJ has declared that the system is the most violent prison system in the country. The Legislature got the DOJ report last year; but shuffled most of the problems to a prison task force to study.

The state prison system is being sued in federal court by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of the prisoners and their families. Already federal Judge Myron Thompson has found that the state does not provide adequate mental healthcare for its prisons and that ADOC is understaffed by over 2,000 officers. Judge Thompson is also expected to cite the state for failure to provide adequate healthcare for the people that it locks up. The legislature responded to the Judge’s ruling by increasing the funding for mental health services, raising the pay of prison guards to promote recruitment and retention, and lowering the training requirements for new corrections officers.

Governors Ivey, and Robert Bentley (R) before her, have both promoted plans to build new mega prisons allowing the state to close many of its aging prison facilities and reducing their staffing requirements. That plan, which would be paid for with a bond issue, has gone to the legislature and died in the past. A simple paper lottery failed in the Alabama House of Representatives last year over Democratic concerns that the proceeds would be used to build prisons rather than for education or Medicaid expansion. Gov. Ivey has moved forward with plans to build three new mega prisons citing executive authority. The state is accepting bids on the package; but has not awarded a bid. Some in the Ivey administration have suggested that the Governor could simply award a contract to lease the new prisons from the conglomerate who builds them. A state legislator on the House Judiciary Committee has told the Alabama Political Reporter that it would be much cheaper for the state in the long run to do it through a bond issue because the state could get a lower interest rate that way.

A comprehensive plan to deal with prisons was discussed in the 2019 Regular Session; but that never emerged. When the Legislature left, most thought that the issue would be addressed in a fall special session. By the time fall rolled around, one source told the Alabama Political Reporter that legislators were focused on the college football season and would have been averse to a fall special session. Another source told APR that the Governor still did not have a final plan on prison construction or the necessary improvements to the prison healthcare system and was not ready to present a plan then.

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The economy is in incredible shape and state revenues are up across the board. State income tax revenues however are earmarked for the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and can not be transferred to the State General Fund (SGF) to deal with the Department of Corrections or other SGF needs such as the Medicaid, mental health, state troopers, forensics, or the court system. Gambling has been suggested as a possible new SGF revenue source; but reaching an agreement on that has proven elusive in the Legislature in the past and would still have to go to a vote of the people meaning there would be little revenue generated for the 2021 fiscal year which begins on October 1.

It has been suggested that once the regular session begins on February 4, Gov. Ivey will call a special session to address the prisons issue before the regular business of the Legislature can resume, much like she did with her controversial road and bridge plan last year.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Marsh’s budget hearing compared to revenge porn

Bill Britt

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Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has scheduled a general fund budget hearing for early July — purportedly to prepare for the 2021 Legislative Session that begins in February.

But that is not the real reason for the budget hearing, according to Senate insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid provoking Marsh. The actual purpose of public hearings, according to multiple sources, is to try to find a way to embarrass Gov. Kay Ivey.

In a press release from his office, Marsh says the budget meetings will focus on funding prison reform and rural broadband.

However, an agenda circulated for a July 9 budget committee meeting obtained by APR makes no mention of broadband and focuses entirely on the Ivey administration’s spending.

In the press release, Marsh said that the budget hearing is needed to address “a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal.”

But according to the Governor’s Office and published reports about Ivey’s prison reform plan, there is no mention of a $2 billion proposal as Marsh claims.

He also states that the other reason for the hearings is to address “a stunning lack of rural broadband investment.” However, broadband is not an item on the agenda.

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Marsh’s enmity toward Ivey was on full display in the days after the governor revealed his “Wish list” in May, to spend federal relief money on a variety of projects only vaguely related to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to those who regularly interact with the Senate, he is still angry that Ivey exposed his plan to appropriate nearly $1.9 billion in federal relief money to finance pet projects, which included spending $200 million on a new State House.

The money the state received under the CARES Act was to be allocated to shore up business, citizens’ interests and institutions ravage by the shutdown due to the spread of COVID-19.

First, Marsh denied the existence of a “wish list,” then he said Ivey asked for it, and finally, he took ownership of the list and said he thought $200 million for a new State House is a “good idea.”

For weeks after the debacle, Marsh aided by some Senate Republicans tried to spin what happened without success.

Marsh had also wanted to use $800 million in CARES Act funds to build out rural broadband and had reportedly hoped to use the budget meeting to push his broadband plan forward.

Ivey blocked his plan to use CARES Act funds for pork projects and convinced the Legislature to reject Marsh’s preferred budget in favor of Ivey’s executive amendment.

“First Ivey made him look greedy and foolish and then she turned most of the Legislature against him,” said one of APR‘s sources.

Recently, Ivey was once again a step ahead of Marsh when just days after he announced his July budget hearings to consider broadband expansion, Ivey released her plan to spend $300 million on rural broadband, stealing his thunder.

According to APR‘s Senate sources, Ivey’s latest move was another blow to Marsh’s ego.

“Del, [Marsh] has power, but he’s never had to deal with a governor who knows how to counter him,” said another Senate insider.

Another regular observer of Marsh said, his latest move to hold budget hearings is akin to “revenge porn.”

“She dumped him, and now he wants to get even, sounds a lot like revenge porn to me,” the source said.

At the July hearing, Ivey Administration officials will be questioned on CARES Act spending, budgets for the department of corrections and pardons and parole.

Finance Director, Kelly Butler, will testify to what CARES funds have been spent and what remains.

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn will be queried on several issues, including hiring, overtime pay, prison construction, and Holman prison’s status and personnel.

Pardons and Paroles Commissioner, Charles Graddick, will face the committee to discuss personnel costs, equipment purchases with an “emphasis upon computers, software, vehicles, office furniture and other substantial expenditures,” according to the document.

Lastly, the committee will question Personnel Department Director, Jackie Graham, to give an account for DOC and ABP&P personnel growth plans.

While it is wholly within the Legislature’s purview to approve and exercise oversight of government spending, this is not what the budget hearings are about according to APR’s sources.

According to several Senate insiders and others with knowledge of Marsh’s thinking, this is a move to paint Ivey’s administration as “out of control on spending.”

“This is a trap Marsh hopes to use for PR, but what if there’s nothing to see, how does he spin it,” asked an individual with close ties to the administration. “She’s kicked his tail before; she’ll likely do it again,” the source said.

 

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House

Senate pro tem requests general fund committee begin hearings in July

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Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, announced today that he has asked Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, to begin holding General Fund Committee meetings in preparation for the next session.

In an effort to be better prepared because of uncertainty in state revenue as a result of COVID-19 pandemic Senator Albritton has agreed with Senator Marsh and has invited Legislative Services, the Department of Finance, Pardons and Paroles, Corrections and the Personnel Department to provide updates to the committee.

“Typically, we begin this process closer to sessions however because of uncertainty about state income and possibility of special sessions, we felt like it was important to get started much earlier than usual in this process,” Senator Albritton said. “The Legislature has done an excellent job managing our budgets over the past few years. So much so that Alabama was able to weather the storm of the COVID-19 shutdown this year with little impact to our vital state services. We understand that we will not have final revenue projections until after July 15th, but we must continue to do our due diligence and ensure that we use taxpayer money sensibly.”

“We want to make sure that all public money is being used wisely, now and in the future,” Senator Marsh said. “We have many pressing issues facing the state such as a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal and a stunning lack of rural broadband investment which need to be addressed whenever the Legislature is back in session and it is our duty to make sure we are prepared and kept up to speed on these matters. Furthermore, the taxpayers deserve a clear and transparent view of how their money is being used.”

The hearings are scheduled to begin July 9 in the Alabama State House.

 

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Governor

Part-time employee in lieutenant governor’s office tests positive for COVID-19

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A part-time employee in Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth’s office, who the office said works only a handful of hours each week, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a press statement.

The employee, whose work area is separated from the rest of the staff, last worked in the office on the morning of Thursday, June 18.

All members of the office staff have been tested or are in the process of being tested for COVID-19 in response, and, thus far, no additional positive results have been reported.

In addition, the State House suite has been thoroughly cleaned and will remain closed until all employees’ test results have been returned.

Employees are working remotely from home, and phones are being answered in order to continue providing services to the citizens who need them.

 

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Legislature

Alabama Democrats call for Rep. Will Dismukes to resign over support for Confederacy

Eddie Burkhalter

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Updated at 8 p.m. to include a response from Rep. Will Dismukes.

The executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party on Friday called for the resignation of a Republican state representative over his support for the Confederacy, Confederate monuments and his membership in a local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. 

The Alabama Democratic Party — in a statement released Friday — said that Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Pratville, is receiving criticism for his support of the lost Confederate cause and “as elected officials of all stripes seek to move Alabama forward, Dismukes is stuck in the past.” 

“Rep. Dismukes, Chaplain of the ‘Prattville Dragoons: Sons of Confederate Veterans,’ was recently praised in the group’s newsletter as being representative of the Confederacy’s ‘Godly heritage,'” the press release states.

“We need elected officials who work for a better tomorrow for all Alabamians,” said Wade Perry, executive director of Alabama Democratic Party, in a statement.  “That should go without saying. If little Will wants to play dress-up and pretend to fight for the lost cause, he should resign. His job is to pass laws that help Alabamians, not honor folks who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.”

Dismukes in a Facebook post later on Friday addressed the call for his resignation, and said he’d neither resign nor apologize for the photo in which he was standing in front of the American and Confederate flags.

“I will release an official statement tomorrow. No worries I’m not resigning because the Democratic Chairman requested my resignation. I also will not be apologizing over a picture in front of the flags nor being chaplain of my local SCV camp which is listed as a heritage group by the SPLC,” Dismukes wrote in his post. “We have enough people caving to the communist left. For the love of life it’s time for people to stop being so sensitive and apologetic and take a stand before our country is Gone with the Wind. This is way bigger than history and monuments. Deo Vindice.”

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Dismukes’s use of the phrase “Deo Vindice” — in his post Friday, and in other posts on his social media — is notable. The phrase was selected by the Confederacy as a motto, and translates to “God will vindicate,” according to the Museum of American History.

In an interview on WVNN’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” Dismukes was critical of a recommendation by House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, to stop using tax money to fund the Confederate Memorial Park in Chilton County.

The Alabama Historical Commission receives about $600,000 annually to run the park, according to Al.com. 

“I think he’s dead wrong. I don’t think it would be a wise decision for our state to move in that direction,” Dismukes said during the program, as quoted by Yellowhammer News.

In a Facebook post on June 14, Dismukes called for more funding for the Confederate Memorial Park.  “No chance we stop funding the State Park!!! This will not happen on my watch,” he wrote.

“We technically give a small portion of what is actually supposed to go towards the park. If anything we should give more to the park and ensure our history is preserved,” Dismukes wrote in the post. 

In an April 27 Facebook post, Dismukes refers to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” In several other Facebook posts, he references and quotes the national motto of the failed Confederacy, “Deo Vindice.”

In another Facebook post, Dismukes is seen standing in front of a Confederate flag, wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag patch while celebrating “Confederate Flag Day.”

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, protests against police brutality have resulted in calls for policies to address systemic racism and for Confederate monuments to come down, and across the South and in Alabama many have already been removed. Monuments in Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery have come down. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation on Thursday released a statement calling for the removal of Confederate monuments, most of which the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit said “were intended to serve as a celebration of Lost Cause mythology and to advance the ideas of white supremacy.” 

“Many of them still stand as symbols of those ideologies and sometimes serve as rallying points for bigotry and hate today. To many African Americans, they continue to serve as constant and painful reminders that racism is embedded in American society,” the nonprofit said in a statement.

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