By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday night asked lawmakers to support a $1 billion bond for K-12, community college and university construction projects and to slow down on proposals for a lottery or casino gambling in the state.
The Alabama Legislature convened for its annual session earlier in the day.
In her third State of the State address, Ivey touted the need for new prisons and more funding for mental and rural health and education initiatives. She’s also proposing pay raises for state and education employees.
The school bond money could be used for new construction, safety improvements or technology upgrades, Ivey said.
“This money will be distributed on a formula basis to allow for much-needed capital improvements across the state,” Ivey said in the Capitol address, her right arm in a sling after tripping over her dog last week. “Equally important, this bond will not include any legislative earmarks for pet projects.
“It has been almost 14 years since Alabama made an investment of this size by providing direct help to our schools.”
One of the headline items going into the legislative session that began Tuesday is the possibility of allowing Alabama voters to decide if they’re ready for a lottery. They rejected a constitutional amendment creating a lottery in 1999.
Ivey asked lawmakers to slow down on any new proposals until they have more facts. Through an executive order, she’s creating a working group to study the possible impacts of a lottery and casino gambling in Alabama.
“Once they have done so — I will bring these facts to the 140 members of the Legislature and the people of Alabama,” Ivey said. “And we will then, once and for all, be in a position to determine whether or not this is a path we want to pursue.
“… My challenge to the Legislature is: give us some time to get the facts and then, together, we will give the people of Alabama the information they need to make the most informed decision possible,” Ivey said.
She also touted her proposal to build three new men’s prisons in the state “that will transition our facilities from warehousing inmates to rehabilitating people.”
Alabama’s deadly and crowded prisons have been a State House topic for years, but have reached a must-fix level, state leaders have said. A federal judge last year ordered 2,000 additional correctional hires by 2022 and the U.S. Department of Justice has threatened a lawsuit over inmate care and conditions. Ivey has issued requests for proposals to three companies interested in building the prisons.
In the State House Tuesday, lawmakers said they still had questions on the exact cost of the new prisons and where they’ll be located.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Alabama has no choice but to reinvent our corrections system by replacing outdated and unsafe facilities that pose a great risk to public safety – and inhibit development of programs for inmate rehabilitation.”
Mental health is also a focus of this session. The state closed three mental hospitals in 2012 and 2015 amid budget cuts and an effort to get people out of institutions and into smaller community based centers. Still, space and availability in those community centers does not match what was lost when the hospitals closed and probate judges and other county officials have in recent years complained that people who need mental health care are ending up in hospitals and county jails, at a cost to local governments.
The Alabama Department of Mental Health is proposing three new crisis centers around the state and is asking for $18 million.
“When open and fully staffed, these centers will become a safe haven for people facing mental health challenges,” Ivey said. “Here, they can be stabilized and treated without being sent to a jail or the hospital.”
On Tuesday, their first day of the session, lawmakers were told by state budget analysts that they’ll have about $400 million more to appropriate in 2021 in both the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund. That would put the General Fund at about $2.6 billion and the ETF at $7.5 billion. But that good news came with a warning: Spend cautiously because the economy will likely slow next year.
Ivey will be sending her budget proposals to lawmakers Wednesday.
Tuesday night, Ivey proposed a 3% raise for K-12 public school and community college educators and a 2% raise for state employees.
“Whether it is the state trooper patrolling our highways or a social worker rescuing an abused child, we can be proud to have so many dedicated men and women who are giving their best to the people of Alabama,” Ivey said.
She also called on the Legislature to support her rural health care initiatives which, among other things, she said would help improve basic primary care in many communities.
“By encouraging these medical professionals to build a practice in these areas, we can literally transform many small towns throughout the state,” she said.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said more rural health care does not mean Medicaid expansion.
“The Republican Party is not in the mood to talk about Medicaid expansion especially when we’re about to talk about building three new prisons that could cost as much as another $100 million a year out of the General Fund budget,” Marsh said.
“We’re talking about a lot of things to try to address those those concerns but I think we have to acknowledge this: you can’t have a rural hospital in every community. You just can’t do it well, and we’ve got to find a way to address those needs without in some cases bricks and mortar.”
Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, said she wishes Ivey would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“While we don’t have the expansion of Medicaid, we have to do something about rural health care,” Coleman said.
Alabama is improving its infrastructure and trying to bring jobs to rural parts of the state, Coleman said.
“Health care is going to be a key factor as far a business recruitment,” she said.
Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, said he hopes to hear from Ivey more clarification on where the three new prisons would be located.
“I want to hear about the conditions on prisons and whether it’s going to be a lease sale, renting or be buying,” Hurst said. “I’ve heard a lot of rumors at this point and I’ve learned to not listen to rumors and just wait for it to come out.”
Hurst also hopes to hear what the funding priorities are since both the Education Trust Fund and General Fund are expected to have additional revenue in 2021.
“Medicaid and prisons take up about 60% of our General Fund budget, so when you look at the rest of it we’ve only got about 40% take care of the rest, which doesn’t leave a lot,” Hurst said.
Sen. Tom Butler, R-Huntsville, said the 800 pound gorilla this session is prisons. He said some lawmakers are concerned about where new prisons will be located and the possible closure of existing facilities that are economic drivers in their areas. His district includes Limestone Correctional Facility in Limestone County.
“(Limestone) is one of the newer prisons, it is working well,” Butler said. “I don’t see it closing.” He said he thinks there is “concurrence” within ADOC about the nearly 400-employee prison.
“Limestone, I think, will be OK,” Butler said.
Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, said she wanted to see a plan to be inclusive of all Alabamians.
“We’re making sure that we are providing adequate health care for our children and increasing funding for education to make sure that all schools are well-funded,” Hall said.
Lawmakers last year began looking at mental health services in the state.
“The legislative bodies have been working very hard on the mental health issue and we’ve got some good ideas on the table,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he is very concerned about mental health services in schools and hopes to see that addressed this session.
“Having counselors in schools, especially in our rural schools, having trained psychologists that are able to speak with each over, whether that be through telecommunication, so they can respond to immediate situations is something that’s desperately needed,” Smitherman said.
About criminal justice and the state’s prisons, Smitherman said he wants to look at raising the sentencing classifications of certain crimes like robbery.
“People would still be punished but whether it rises to the point of a felony needs to be looked at and reevaluated,” Smitherman said.
Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, had hoped to hear Ivey propose tax cuts.
“We had some polling this year that showed that the second most important thing for Alabama citizens is a tax cut so I would like to hear some tax cut proposals,” Sorrell said.
Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, said creating additional bed spaces for mental health patients is also a priority.
“Being from Tuscaloosa where Bryce Hospital is and (Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility and Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatry Center) are, we have a desperate need for additional beds so we don’t end up housing these mental health patients in our local jails where they shouldn’t be,” Wingo said.
Per the state constitution, lawmakers now have 104 calendar days to address these issues and others.
Alabama Daily News reporters Caroline Beck, Abby Driggers and Devin Pavlou contributed to this report.