Wednesday, May 4th, marked the close of the 2016 Alabama Legislature’s Regular Session. Legislators passed the constitutionally required appropriations bills fairly early in the session which left time for debate on several high profile issues. Many of these issues were not resolved which causes speculation that a special session may be called later in the year.
A detailed analysis of several legislative initiatives will be discussed over the next couple of days; I- Fuel Tax (see HERE), II- BP Settlement (see HERE), III- Prison Construction (today), IV- Appropriations, and V- Other Legislation of Interest.
Today…. Prison Construction
Alabama prisons are currently occupied by 188% more prisoners than there are beds. This is defined as “overcrowding.” The prisons have 13,318 beds to house 25,102 prisoners.
On May 21, 2015, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed legislation, SB67 sponsored by Senator Cam Ward, which was intended to provide sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards with the intent to reduce crowding to a level of 137%.
The changes seek to steer low-level offenders away from prison by creating a new Class D felony category and to reduce recidivism with making changes to probation and supervision. The legislation was the product of a Prison Reform Task Force.
The Alabama prison system was placed in federal receivership in the 1970’s, which led to a court-ordered release of inmates. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating conditions at the state’s only prison for women after accusing the state of failing to protect inmates from sexual abuse and harassment. The Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed separate suits on behalf of state inmates to address safety, health and disability issues.
The changes made by SB67 have only recently begun to be implemented. In February, 2016, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles announced that it was hiring 100 new officers and another 23 probation and parole specialists. Additionally, a new Day Reporting Center opened in Birmingham in January and others are expected to be opened throughout the state. These changes will theoretically allow supervision of all prisoners that are released for parole.
The legislation also provides $4 million in funding to expand substance abuse treatment for probationers and parolees.
Interestingly, the Prison Reform Task Force recommendations make no mention about the need to construct new prisons. In fact the task force was told that “Alabama cannot build its way out of the chronic overcrowding of state prisons.”
The Governor, however, has apparently come to a different conclusion. While the changes created by SB67 were still in their formative stages, he proposed to the legislature a massive $800 million prison building plan that would result in the construction of 4 new prisons and the closure of 14 older facilities.
The legislation, SB287 sponsored by Senator Trip Pittman (R- Montrose) passed the Senate on a 23-11 vote. Only five Republican senators voted against the plan; Bill Holtzclaw (R- Madison), Paul Sanford (R- Huntsville), Shay Shelnutt (R- Trussville), Paul Bussman (R- Cullman) and Clay Scofield (R- Guntersville).
The $800 million in funding is proposed to come from a bond issue that will be result in a $50 million payment requirement over the next 30 years ($1.5 billion repayment). Proponents of the bill maintain that the $50 million will come from “savings” produced by consolidating the prisons (requiring fewer personnel) and reduced maintenance expense.
No economic study was publicly produced to evaluate whether the savings projection was realistic. Additionally, no economic study was provided to determine the impact that prison facility closure would have on the local communities where they are currently located. There was also no study discussing the impact on prison personnel that would be relocated. In fact, there was no disclosure at all regarding where the new facilities would be constructed.
SB287 also set forth a no bid process for the construction project.
The bill reached the House, passed out of the Ways & Means General Fund Committee and was considered before the full House on April 28th, the 28th legislative day. During House consideration, the bill became quite controversial. Several representatives attempted to amend the bill.
Representative Mike Holmes (R- Wetumpka) offered an amendment that would preclude the state from closing an existing prison until the Department of Corrections had conducted an economic impact study to determine the impact of the closure on the region’s employment, economic growth and debt service (many communities have outstanding debt requirements for infrastructure they constructed on behalf of the prisons).
Representative Holmes’ amendment passed on a 49-44 vote and the proponents of the legislation were clearly not pleased. Voting on the prevailing side were 23 republicans and 26 democrats. After considerable arm-twisting, the vote was reconsidered and this time the amendment failed on a 54-33 vote. 7 republicans and 9 democrats changed their vote. The republicans were; Dickie Drake (Birmingham), Mickey Hammon (Decatur), Corey Harbison (Cullman), Steve McMillan (Bay Minette), Barry Moore (Enterprise), Jim Patterson (Meridianville) and Ritchie Whorton (Owens Cross Roads).
Later in the debate, Representative A.J. McCampbell (D- Livingston) offered an amendment that would require the DOC to produce a report by the 25th legislative day of the next regular legislative session and would then allow the legislature to approve or reject the report. If the report was rejected, no bonds would be let and no project would be built. Surprisingly, McCampbell’s amendment passed on a 49-35 vote with 23 republicans and 26 democrats supporting it, very similar to the first Holmes’ amendment vote.
With this amendment, the bill then passed the full House and was sent to the Senate to either concur with the changes or to go to conference committee. Obviously, the bill’s proponents were not happy with the amended bill.
Upon arrival in the Senate, the bill now had 2 legislative days remaining for passage. Intense negotiations began and it appeared that the senate was posturing for a filibuster of the bill. The Senate voted to send the bill to conference committee where negotiation proceeded throughout the 29th day and into the 30th day. Ultimately, late on the 30th day, a compromise substitute was developed.
The substitute would essentially reduce the amount of the bond issue from $800 million to $550 million reducing the number of prisons to be built and added some additional transparency language. The McCampbell amendment was stripped from the substitute.
The Senate then began a filibuster on the bill on the last legislative day. The filibuster led by Senators Paul Sanford (R- Huntsville) and Vivian Figures (D- Mobile) lasted until about 10:30 pm when it was ended by a cloture petition that passed on a vote of 23-9. There are 26 republicans in the senate and 23 of them voted to close debate (3 republicans abstained; Paul Sanford, Shay Shelnutt and Larry Stutts).
The bill received final passage at approximately 10:45 pm and was sent to the House for concurrence. The House rules allow for debate on this motion and it would have required invoking cloture in order to get it passed prior to the midnight deadline. The House public viewing gallery was packed with lobbyists holding their collective breaths.
What transpired was quite interesting. The bill was never brought up for consideration. House Speaker Mike Hubbard later told reporters that there were not enough votes to stop the debate and so the bill died. Supposedly, many House members were uncomfortable voting on the hastily negotiated substitute.
The Governor, obviously disappointed, is considering whether to call the legislature back to Montgomery to address the issue.
The Alabama Forestry Association supports the reforms passed in the 2015 session and believes that adequate time should be given to see if this legislation results in positive improvement in the prison crowding challenge.
With respect to new construction, AFA supports a fiscally responsible and transparent solution. The original construction bill has a $50 million payback requirement that, if the savings are not generated, will fall back to the state’s General Fund appropriations causing even more stress on an already tight budget. If new prisons are ultimately determined to be the answer, AFA supports building one at a time, rather than a massive construction project. Additionally, AFA believes that a “design, bid, build” model for construction is better for Alabama’s taxpayers rather than the proposed “negotiated” no-bid solution offered in the current proposal.