MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Kay Ivey said Tuesday that the state must reinvent its corrections system as it grapples with a prison crisis and also called for borrowing $1 billion to fund improvements at public schools.
The Republican governor detailed a wide-ranging agenda in her annual State of the State address given on the opening night of the legislative session.
Ivey said she is creating a group to study a lottery or casinos as a revenue source for the state, a move that could press the pause button on anticipated gambling debate in the Alabama Legislature.
Prisons are expected to be a central focus on the legislative session after the U.S. Justice Department last year said violent and crowded conditions in Alabama prisons violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Some of our worst, most crowded facilities – one of which was built more than 90 years ago — were never designed for the number of violent offenders we have today,” Ivey said.
Ivey’s administration is exploring a plan to lease three new regional prisons and close most existing facilities. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the proposals from companies are due in April 30 and they anticipate announcing the projects in late summer.
A criminal justice commission created by the governor is also recommending changes, including better educational programs for inmates, in hopes of reducing recidivism. During her televised address, the governor recognized a former state inmate who now works as a recruiter and an office administrator after earning a manufacturing certificate while incarcerated.
The governor also cautiously waded into the debate over whether to allow a lottery or casinos in the state.
Ivey said she is signing an executive order to create a study group to gather information on how much money a gambling expansion would generate. Lawmakers had been expected to debate a lottery bill in the upcoming session.
The governor said she has personally never favored “such an unstable source of funding”as a way to pay for essential state services, but added that she believed voters should get the “final say on whether or not we are going down this path.”
“Like you, I’m fully aware that the four states which border us all have some form of gaming,” Ivey told lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said he believed many lawmakers will take the creation of a study commission as a reason, or perhaps an excuse, to pause before plunging forward.
“I think she kind of threw her stop sign out there,” Singleton said.
Ivey said she is also seeking a $1 billion bond issue to fund improvements at public schools and two-and four-year colleges and universities.
She also called for a 3% pay raise for public school employees and an additional $25 million for the state’s prekindergarten program to fund 193 additional classrooms. She also called for greater investments in mental health, including building three new regional crisis centers and a 2% pay raise for state employees.
The governor also used the annual televised address to call for voters to approve a proposal before state voters next month that will replace the state’s appointed school board with an appointed commission. She said Alabama continually is at the bottom on national education rankings, a position that would not be tolerated in football rankings.
“We all know that a world-class workforce begins with a world-class education system,” Ivey said.
Despite being backed by the state’s elected leaders, the measure faces an uncertain outlook before voters. The executive committee of the Alabama Republican Party last year approved a resolution urging people to vote no and “retain our right to elect” school board members.
The governor largely drew praise from lawmakers in attendance Tuesday night, but several said they wanted additional details on some of the proposals.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said he was pleased with the governor’s speech and proposals, particularly the increased funding for prekindergarten. Daniels said he wanted to hear more detail about prison reform.
“Conversations about sentencing and bail reform is something I have much rather heard from her tonight,” Daniels said.
Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of groups and individuals advocating on behalf of inmates, criticized the administration’s continued focus on prison construction, saying “buildings cannot provide the programs and the treatment so desperately needed in Alabama’s prisons.”