By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – State Representative Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who is set to sponsor the new prison building legislation for a likely special session, said he has about 70% of House Republicans responding positively to the bill as of Tuesday afternoon.
“It is very, very encouraging,” Clouse told Alabama Daily News.
There are 77 members of the House GOP Caucus, meaning if Clouse’s estimation holds up, legislative leaders are already approaching the majority needed to pass the bill in the 104-member House.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said on Tuesday that no headcount had been taken of Democratic members yet but discussions are still ongoing.
“We are focusing on the content of the bill right now before we get concerned about a vote,” Daniels told ADN.
State lawmakers in recent weeks have been working towards a finished product on legislation that would build three new prisons and renovate others in phases in order to alleviate the state’s overcrowded and dangerous prisons and avoid a federal takeover of the state system.
Closed-door caucus meetings were held last week for lawmakers to discuss the latest bill draft. State House leaders were wanting a final headcount by the end of this week. If the votes are there, Gov. Kay Ivey could call a special session as soon as the last week of September, lawmakers told ADN.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said in a statement that feedback from both parties is still being received in order to make “an already good bill even better.”
“Everyone understands the need to take action, and response to the legislation has been quite positive overall,” McCutcheon said.
Daniels said some key concerns for Democrats were to make sure prison reforms were included in the package and also that more attention be given to the state’s only women’s prison, Tutwiler prison.
“We also want to make sure there is proper attention given to the bidding process for construction and so we want to get more clarity on that,” Daniels said.
Daniels said the Democratic Caucus would meet on Thursday to further discuss the prison legislation.
Lawmakers are considering a multi-phased plan that would build two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties and a new 1,000-bed women’s prison in Elmore County.
The bill would authorize the state to borrow up to $785 million and lawmakers are estimating they can use about $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The annual debt service on the bond would be about $50 million, according to information given to lawmakers.
The total cost for the two men’s prisons is estimated to be $1.2 billion.
Clouse said the price tag of the project and whether it will be a strain on the General Fund budget is the most common concern he has been hearing from members so far.
“But we were already prepared to spend about $88 million (per year) on the lease plan so we’re way below that with room to spare,” Clouse said.
Ivey’s original lease plan that would have built three large men’s prisons on private land had an expected price tag of $3 billion. That amount, plus the fact that the state wouldn’t own the prisons, turned many lawmakers against the plan as financial negotiations eventually fell through earlier this year.
Overall, Clouse said he is feeling positive about the outlook of the bill.
Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, has not decided yet on how he feels about the bill but told ADN the bond issue is his biggest concern.
“It’s just concerning how much debt that we’re putting Alabama citizens under. So I wouldn’t say I’m avidly opposed to the prison plan. I know we need new prisons and I know we’re under a federal court order, but I do not vote for bond issues,” Sorrell said.
Rep. Barbra Boyd, D-Anniston, told ADN that she is still reviewing the bill but said she would like to see the construction of the new women’s prison be given priority.
“I appreciate the governor and the Legislature beginning to look at prison reform but my main concern, as it has always been, is Tutwiler,” Boyd said. “I would like it if possible that Tutwiler be dealt with in phase 1 of the plan, but regardless I’m grateful they are even considering the women’s prison.”
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, couldn’t say if she was for or against the bill as of Tuesday but said a lot of her questions about the bill have been answered at this point.
“I’m concerned that the federal government, if we’re not taking action, will move forward and so I think it’s time for us to stop kicking the can down the road,” Collins said.
Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said overall he likes the look of the bill but said the price tag makes him hesitant to fully support. But he knows that new facilities are needed in the state.
“We’ve got to have some facilities where our security guards are taken care of and not in harm’s way. And also the inmates, make sure we can keep them from hurting each other,” Wood told ADN.