After Damning Report, Alabama House Approves $40M Prison Budget Increase
By Mike Cason
The Alabama House of Representatives approved a General Fund budget today with a $40 million increase for the state's troubled prison system.
Gov. Kay Ivey had requested the increase before last week's Department of Justice report alleging unconstitutional conditions in men's prisons in Alabama. But the money will be applied to one of the key causes cited by the DOJ.
About $30 million is aimed to hire 500 more correctional officers and increase pay by 20 percent to help keep more officers on the job. The DOJ said a severe staff shortage exacerbated dangerous conditions that led investigators to conclude there is reasonable cause to believe the conditions violate the Eighth Amendment.
The 500 new officers would be only a step toward a court order to add 2,000 new officers over the next few years.
The budget would increase the General Fund appropriation for the Alabama Department of Corrections to $517 million in 2020, $40 million more than this year and $70 million more than last year.
Overall, the budget passed on a 103-0 vote by the House calls for spending $2.1 billion from the General Fund, about 4 percent more than this year.
After passing the budget, the House passed a bill to give state employees a 2 percent cost of living raise. That was also part of Ivey's budget request. It would be the second straight year for state employees to receive a COLA after going a decade without one. State employees received a 3 percent cost of living raise this year.
The House added an amendment to name the pay raise bill after Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery, who died on March 27 after a heart attack. Polizos had been sponsor of the legislation.
The budget bills move to the Senate. They advanced more easily than in many previous years. The Legislature has frequently resorted to borrowing or one-time funding sources to prop up the General Fund. That wasn't necessary for next year's budget.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chairman of the General Fund committee, said a strong economy led to increased revenues from insurance premium taxes, taxes on online sales and other sources.
Also, the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the biggest spender of General Fund dollars, is expected to carry over money from this year and requested a smaller General Fund appropriation for next year.
Clouse said lawmakers had to take a long-range view because Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, ALL Kids, will need hefty increases in 2021.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said legislators should be concerned about one potential spending obligation that was not in the budget.
Ivey is considering a plan to engage private companies to build three new men's prisons and lease them to the state. A "Request for Expressions of Interest" posted by the Alabama Department of Corrections projects the lease payments at $78 million a year.
England said the Ivey plan could bind lawmakers to lease payments every year without seeking approval to fund new prisons.
"The Legislature needs to take on this responsibility and wrestle it away from the executive branch," England said.
A spokesman for the ADOC said in a statement the Request for Expressions of Interest is part of "a collaborative effort with state legislators" to gather information and determine how to proceed on prisons.
"The Expression of Interest (EOI) is a helpful part of the overall qualifications and proposal process and will allow the corrections industry to provide valuable and transparent input into the facilitation of the Alabama prison plan, which is a collaborative effort with state legislators. This process will enable the state to make an informed and definitive decision on the appropriate path forward," spokesman Bob Horton said in a statement.
In 2016 and 2017, the Legislature rejected plans initially proposed by former Gov. Robert Bentley to issue bonds to pay for prison construction.
The ADOC has said initial estimates for the cost of the three new prisons would be about $900 million. The ADOC says it can make the lease payments with money saved by consolidating services and closing many of the existing prisons.
(c)2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham