Alabama Legislature

Prisons, Lottery, Raises, Mental Health on Legislative Agenda

Alabama State House (Source: Alabama Daily News)

Alabama’s 2020 legislative session begins Tuesday in Montgomery, where the state’s prison crisis and another effort to let Alabamians vote on a lottery promise to be must-watch issues. There’s also the state’s budgets, both with more money and more demands in 2021, and possible raises for state employees and teachers.

Increased mental health services, which most agree haven’t been properly addressed in years, and legalizing medical marijuana are also on the table.

Gov. Kay Ivey will give her third State of the State speech Tuesday evening.

“You can expect to hear Gov. Ivey laud the momentum Alabama is experiencing, while also being very upfront on the areas that need improvements,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “Her attention remains focused on the upcoming census, the state’s criminal justice system, education and health care, and I am confident we will be hearing her go into more detail on those items.”

Here’s a look at some of the issues expected to be debated.

‘Accessibility’ to Education Legislation Coming

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, last week told Alabama Daily News he’s working on education legislation and cited Alabama’s low standings in national rankings as the reason change is needed. Marsh’s legislation isn’t yet publicly available, but he said it will focus on “accessibility.”

“That every parent and student have access to a good education,” is how Marsh described the point of the legislation. He’s long been a proponent of school choice, including charter schools and the Alabama Accountability Act, which offers tax credits and scholarships to help students attend private schools.

“I’m of the appetite to do something much larger to address the problem, but I need to see how my colleagues feel,” Marsh said.

“I think the timing is right, I think people on both sides of the aisle want to do something, we’ll just see how big they want to go,” he said.

Separately, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said she expects a bill clarifying the funding of charter schools. Her 2015 legislation allowed for the creation of the publicly funded schools that operate outside traditional schools’ guidelines.

“There needs to be some clarification for the funding, just so when (charter schools) come in, they know exactly what their funding will be,” Collins, chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, said.

Lottery, Gambling

It’s been more than 20 years since Alabamians rejected a constitutional amendment to allow a lottery in Alabama. More recent legislative efforts to give voters another chance have failed, largely over State House fights about how lottery revenue would be spent and how it would affect existing electronic gambling in the state.

A lottery bill that would have sent proceeds to the General Fund, to support non-education agencies, cleared the Senate last year but died in the House.

This year, efforts will start with a bill from Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark. His proposal would split lottery revenue between the state’s pre-K program and college scholarships.

“Last year, it was evident in the House that the money had to go to education,” Clouse said. “I think it’s generally been accepted around the nation that lottery money should go toward education.”

The proposal coincides with Gov. Ivey’s Strong Start, Strong Finish education initiative for pre-K through post-secondary, Clouse said. Currently, the state’s award-winning voluntary pre-K program is only funded to reach about 40% of the state’s 4-year-olds.

“There’s plenty of room for growth,” Clouse said.

But not all lawmakers agree with committing all lottery revenue to education. While revenues differ depending on the types of games allowed, previous estimates on a basic lottery put revenues at about $166 million a year.

“I’ve always supported the lottery, but I won’t support this if it’s just for education,” long-time Rep. Lynn Greer said. He doesn’t agree with earmarking all revenue for pre-K and college scholarships when there are other needs.

“They want to put half of it into a play school; we need to teach kids to read and write, we need to get more teachers and we need to pay them more,” Greer, R-Rogersville, said.

Greer said he wants some of the money to go into the General Fund and flexibility in spending from year to year.

Clouse said he expects debate on his bill.

“There will be other recommendations for the money. That’s fine. We’ll just see where the conversation goes,” he said.

Some of that talk will likely include the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ recent proposal to pay the state $225 million for the exclusive right to operate casino games in Alabama.

The Poarch Creek now have three casinos in the state. The proposal includes the exclusive right to casino games at the existing casinos and at two additional north Alabama sites. The state would also receive a negotiated share of the revenue annually. The tribe projected it could boost state revenue by $1 billion including revenue sharing, taxes and license fees, the Associated Press reported last year. The Poarch Creek also support a lottery.

State House leaders’ reactions are mixed on that proposal.

“They have approached it in a way that makes sense,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, the Senate General Fund budget committee chairman. His district includes the Atmore casino and tribe offices.

“Right now, as far as I know, that’s the only plan out there,” Albritton said. “That (revenue) would resolve the issues we have in Alabama.”

Not everyone is convinced.

“I think there’s a few issues that need to be discussed,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said. “We’re not trying to create a monopoly for one group when it comes to gambling. We need to keep it competitive. I would hope there is some room in there for negotiations and compromise.”

Clouse said he sees the lottery and the Poarch Creek offer as two separate issues. The lottery would require a vote of the people and doesn’t need the governor’s signature. A compact with the Poarch Creek would require approval from the governor’s office.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said the state needs to look at non-tax proposals that will create new revenue to support needed services for Alabamians. He pointed to recent U.S. Census Bureau data that said poverty grew in 27 of Alabama’s 67 counties between 2016 and 2018.

“At the end of the day, we have to create healthy communities, we have to help people help themselves and we have to move in a direction that will help Alabama grow,” Daniels said.

Prisons, Criminal Justice Reform

Prison crowding and conditions aren’t new topics in the State House, but this year includes the looming threat of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over violence, inmate deaths, crowding and staffing shortages in state prisons. Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Corrections last week closed most of a major prison because of deteriorating utilities. Several other prisons are 50-years old or older and need hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of maintenance.

“Let’s deal with it, once and for all,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

A study commission created last year by Ivey recommended last week that the state make a push to reduce recidivism, undertake sentencing reform and increase oversight and spending on prisons, the AP reported.

Ward, who is on the commission, said he expects four or five bills this session, including some changes to the habitual offender act and more education and workforce training.

“We’re really focusing on recidivism, educating the workforce population so they can get a job when they get in the community and be productive,” Speaker McCutcheon said. “We feel like we may have addressed sentencing reform (in previous sessions), but we haven’t addressed the recidivism issue.”

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said more should be done to keep people from ever entering prison.

“One way we could help criminal justice reform is look at how we fund education, and the Legislature needs to be more in touch and make sure children are getting the resources that they need to minimize children dropping out of school,” Moore said.

Separate from reform legislation, Ivey has been moving forward to get bids from companies to build three large prisons. The proposals are expected this spring. Lawmakers will be out of session by mid-May.

Because of that, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he doesn’t expect much for lawmakers to do regarding construction. Funding prison operations will be their focus.

“We’ve got to spend more money to hire more correctional officers,” Orr said.

Legislators meet in a budget hearing. (Source:: Alabama Daily News)

“I think the governor does construction without us,” Ward said. “Construction alone isn’t going to fix this, but it’s part of the equation.”

Still, several lawmakers say they expect to be part of the new prison conversation.

“At some point, we have to appropriate the money,” Clouse said.

“Our main concern right now is: what is the price tag and can we afford it?” Marsh said. “At the end of the day, the Legislature has to fund it.”

And while Ivey’s efforts are focused on three new facilities for men, Rep. Daniels, the Democratic House leader, thinks replacing Tutwiler, the state’s main female prison, should be considered.

“You can’t have a conversation about the men’s facilities without including the women’s,” he said.

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said he wants to make sure the state isn’t moving toward private prisons.

“A lot of folks are concerned that this will lead to the privatization of prisons and that’s the way it seems to be going,” Rogers said.

“Everyone is focused on just building more prisons and locking up more people but the problem is we can’t afford to do that in the sense that we can’t really find people who want to work in our prison systems,” Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, said. “You’re creating a situation where you’re making it not only unsafe for the prisoners but also for those who would work there. We’re going to have to address the prison overcrowding and part of that is going to have to be some sort of sentencing reform. That’s probably the number one thing we’re going to deal with.”

Teacher, State Employee Raises

The state’s teacher shortage will likely be addressed in the education budget, Collins said. A study group in 2019 recommended nearly two dozen tactics for recruiting and retaining teachers, including higher salaries and better benefits and incentives for teachers in high needs areas.

Orr, the Senate education budget chairman, said he favors paying teachers more instead of changing their benefits.

“Let’s pay them on the front end,” he said.

He also wants to see a focus on getting more STEM teachers.

“There is a tremendous need for teachers with expertise. So many systems don’t have enough of them,” Orr said.

McCutcheon and others said raises for public school educators and state employees are likely.

“Our economy is strong, our budgets are strong, so that’s part of the discussion – a raise for our educators as well as state employees,” McCutcheon said.

Orr said he expects raises for teachers in the range of 2% to 3%.

Lawmakers will also have to consider whether additional funding is needed for teacher or employee health insurance or retirement funding.

“The bottom line is that we want to protect their benefit packages, then raises will come once we’ve looked at those numbers,” McCutcheon said.

Medical Marijuana

Advocates for medical marijuana, including Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, are trying again this year with legislation allowing people who have specified conditions access to cannabis.

A bill passed the Senate last year but had less support in the House.

“I think people need to put away their stereotypes and realize that people who need it really do need it,” Melson, a medical doctor, said. “It’s easy to be against something when your family member or friend or co-worker doesn’t need it. When someone you care about does, you realize the benefits.”

Melson said he’s been told the bill will get a vote on the House floor this year.

Last month, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote to lawmakers to express his opposition to medical marijuana. First, he said, the substance is still banned under federal law. Second, Marshall than compared marijuana to opioids and said it is an addictive drug.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states allow for medical marijuana.

Melson’s bill has not yet been made public.

Alabama Daily News’ reporters Caroline Beck, Devin Pavlou and Abby Driggers contributed to this report.