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Alabama House to consider bill to create check on costly contracts

The bill comes after much concern from lawmakers over Gov. Kay Ivey’s estimated $3.7 billion prison plan.

The Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery.

The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday is to take up a bill that would establish a new oversight committee tasked with reviewing state agency agreements worth $10 million or more. 

The legislation comes as Gov. Kay Ivey’s push to build three new prisons under a controversial build-lease plan, without input from the state Legislature, could cost taxpayers $3.7 billion over the terms of the contracts.

Ivey on Feb. 1 signed 30-year leases for two new prisons to be built by the private prism company CoreCivic in Escambia and Elmore counties. The state will operate the prisons while CoreCivic is to handle maintenance, according to the contracts. 

State Rep.  Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, introduced House Bill 392, which would create the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency, consisting of the chair and vice chair of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee and the ranking minority members of both committees. 

The committee would review any agreement totaling at least $10 million, or 5 percent of the agency’s annual appropriation, and if after 45 days from the time the agreement was submitted there is no objection, the agreement would be approved, according to the legislation. 

If the committee disapproves of an agreement, it will remain suspended until after the end of the next regular legislative session, when lawmakers would have the opportunity to address concerns over the agreement, according to the legislation.  

“It is important that we maintain a system of checks and balances, and the Legislature must be able to access important information about agreements that obligate the General Fund to substantial expenditures,” Jones said in a statement. “This bill provides an additional layer of oversight on large executive branch agreements in a manner that is fair, transparent, and, most of all, constitutional.”

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Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, supports Jones’s legislation, and in a statement said such oversight is needed. 

“Whenever an administration enters into agreements involving millions of taxpayer dollars, the Legislature deserves to have its questions answered and any concerns addressed,” McCutcheon said.  “Rep. Jones’s legislation offers a commonsense method of protecting taxpayers and reassuring lawmakers when large sums of dollars are being obligated.”

Jone’s bill would only apply to future agreements, and so would not impact Ivey’s prison construction plan. Attempts to reach Jones and Ivey’s office for comment on the legislation Monday weren’t immediately successful. 

A previous plan to build new prisons in Alabama by former Gov. Robert Bentley failed when state legislators declined to approve a bond issuance to pay for the new prisons. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in December filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards. 

In previously released reports the Justice Department detailed systemic problems of abuse from guards, corruption, rampant drug use, violence, overcrowding and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons.  The DOJ in those reports states that while new prison facilities might help in some areas, new buildings won’t fully address the state’s widespread, deadly problems in its prisons.

ADOC officials have also said the new prisons alone won’t solve the overcrowding issues in state prisons. Suggested prison reform legislation that might have helped addressed overcrowded stalled last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic ended the state’s legislative session early.

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Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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