House committee hears debate over prison transformation bill

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One of the hallmark ideas laid out in the “State of the State” address by Gov. Robert Bentley, a plan to demolish all but two of Alabama’s 16 prisons and replace them with four new facilities, went before the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Wednesday.

The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act, HB313, provides for the sale of about $800 million in bonds for the construction of four super-prisons and the renovation of two facilities yet to be determined. The remaining 14 prisons would be demolished. During the committee hearing, it was revealed that these bonds are to be paid by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), which will pay a lease on the new facilities to the Alabama Corrections Institute Finance Authority (ACIFA). The rent paid to the ACIFA would then be used to pay off the bonds.

In order to get a higher bond rating and, in turn, a lower interest rate, the state put up its 1 mill of property tax as collateral on the bonds. Those funds are currently used to help fund the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA). That raised the ire of ADVA Commissioner Clyde Marsh, who said the department wouldn’t be able to function without the money generated from the 1 mill tax.

“We can’t do without that,” Marsh said, noting that the funds generated from the tax account for about $34 million in funding. “You’re putting veterans at risk if you do that.”

State Finance Director Bill Newton clarified that the ADVA would still receive that money, it was simply “put up” as a way to acquire better rates from Wall Street. Despite that, Rep. John Knight (D-Montgomery) opposed using veterans’ funding as collateral and was joined in his disdain by Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham). Mooney recommended offering up hard assets or land as collateral in place of the 1 mill tax, which Newton said he would explore.

Additional concern over the bill came from a slew of architects, engineers and contractors who opposed language in the bill that they said would stifle competition and possibly put taxpayer dollars in jeopardy by allowing contractors to hire their own architects to oversee construction. The argument, as it was presented, notes that if contractors are able to hire their own architects or engineers, those workers will serve at the pleasure of the contractor and be less likely to make efforts to ensure the job is done correctly and efficiently.

Rhonda Brownstein, Legal Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, voiced concerns over building new prisons rather than passing further reforms to reduce the number of prisoners in Alabama’s prison system, noting that reforms passed last year have not even been allowed to play out yet.

“Before we move forward with a plan to spend $1 billion, we should see how the current reforms work out,” Brownstein said. “We also need to engage in further reforms, deeper reforms, to get more people out of prison.”

Brownstein’s comments drew the wrath of Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper), who noted that the focus should be on attaining better conditions for those people already in prison, rather than finding ways to get people out of prison.

“I would build several more prisons and lock a lot more people up,” Rowe said.

Rep. Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) concurred saying, “We don’t lock up enough people.”

ADOC Commissioner Jefferson Dunn discussed his department’s efforts in evaluating the state’s prison problems and instituting “effective, evidence-based” methods for improving conditions for Alabama’s prisoners. Alabama currently ranks third in the country for most people incarcerated.

“A prison is much like a small city with a population that has to be cared for,” Dunn said. “To the extent that we can go from running 16 small cities to running six small cities, we will see significant savings from that alone.”

Because public input was widespread, as well as questions and concerns from committee members, no vote was taken on the legislation and it will be taken up again in next week’s meeting.

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