The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would create an oversight committee tasked with providing a check on costly executive branch agreements.
Members voted unanimously to approve House Bill 392, introduced by state Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, which would create the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency that 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.
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, which 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.
Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, asked Jones before the vote if the bill is an “overreach of separation of powers.”
Jones said that the bill is not and that “we can’t tell the executive branch not to sign something.” Jones said his bill would give time for legislative committees to review and address such agreements.
“I think this is overkill. I understand what you’re doing, and I think your intentions are noble, but I don’t really see it,” Pringle said.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, said he supports the bill and explained it would help broaden transparency.
“I love the governor. I think the governor’s doing a great job, but a lot of times we have to keep in mind the worst case scenario over there,” Ball said.
Ball went on to say that when things are kept secret “it creates an opportunity for corruption.”
Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, expressed concern that, if the Legislature were to determine there were problems with an executive branch agreement, there would still be no avenue for legislators to stop such an agreement.
Jones said his bill would allow the Legislature to have the time to address any such agreement in two ways. In the first, the general fund budget could be reduced, he said, and the Legislature could decide to make changes through legislation.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who’s been a vocal critic of Ivey’s prison construction plan, expressed support for the bill and said at the end of the terms of the leases signed by Ivey, the state still won’t own the prison buildings.
“I wish we had this about 12 months ago,” England said.
England discussed a previous bill in a prior legislative session that he and Jones worked on together that would have closed some prisons, built others and spent millions.
“What’s interesting about that is the legislative process is designed to make it difficult to do things like that,” England said, adding that spending billions of dollars shouldn’t be an easy thing to do.
“It should be hard. It should take years. It should have as many eyes on it as possible. It should go through oversight,” England said.
House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Madison, said he’s supportive of Ivey and her decisions, that he believes the bill could be “borderline undermining the governor” and asked Jones if the bill could be altered to address only future governors.
“This is where I would fundamentally disagree,” Jones replied. “I do believe that this governor has spoken many times in the past about transparency and that government should be transparent to the public, to the citizens of the state. I mean frankly, that’s one of the reasons why we all respect this governor.”
Daniels said the Legislature moved too slow on the prison matter, and that Ivey “did what she needed to do.”
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, asked Jones about a potential emergency situation, which might require general fund money, and Jones said the Legislature should be able to review that.
Jones said the majority of such emergencies would be addressed with federal funds, and his bill only addresses executive branch use of the state’s General Fund budget.
Having been approved in the House, the Senate will take up the bill next.