By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon says state leaders need to approach the issues plaguing prisons, including staffing shortages and decaying facilities, like it did the state’s roads.
“I told (Gov. Kay Ivey) that we need to be working on this just like we did with the Rebuild Alabama Act,” McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Wednesday at the Association of County Commissions of Alabama’s legislative conference “We need a comprehensive approach to this that brings all of leadership to the table so we’re all on the same page.”
The Rebuild Alabama Act, lawmakers’ priority in the 2019 session, included a 10-cent a gallon gas tax increase.
On Wednesday, McCutcheon listed prisons and criminal justice reform as a major priority for the 2020 session that starts in February.
Sonny Brasfield, the executive director of the ACCA, also spoke about the extra burden placed on county jails because of the state’s prison problems. Brasfield said that he would like the legislature to look more closely at how “dunks” and “dips” are draining county jails of resources without giving them any extra compensation.
“Dips” are when recently released inmates have a “technical” violation of their parole and are sent to the county jail for a three-day stay. “Dunks” are when they have six or more “dips” and are transferred to a state prison for a 45-day stay. But Brasfield has said those transfers don’t always happen in a timely manner and the inmates stay in the county jail.
Related to “dunks” and “dips,” McCutcheon said there are not enough parole officers to help monitor inmates’ transition out of custody.
“We don’t have the man power to take care of the inmates we’re expecting to be releasing and because of that, that has to be part of the discussion we talk about,” McCutcheon said.
Rural health care access is going to be another top priority for in the next session, McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said he’s not considering Medicaid expansion but wants to do more with the Alabama Coordinated Health Network to provide more preventative care for Medicaid recipients.
Earlier this year, Medicaid contracted with seven private entities to manage the care of most Medicaid recipients. The Alabama Coordinated Health Network creates a system that links patients, providers and community resources in seven regions, according to Medicaid.
“The network will steer those covered by Medicaid away from the emergency room and put them into systems to where they can get clinics for preventative type care, such as treatment of diabetes or treatment for pregnancy,” McCutcheon said.
He also said rural broadband access is connected to rural health care and increasing broadband to unserved and underserved areas remains a priority.
“Especially if we move toward clinic-type care in rural areas, the broadband network is going to be vital to us to provide the services we need,” McCutcheon said.
About a dozen rural Alabama hospitals have closed in recent years, according to the Alabama Hospital Association.
McCutcheon also spoke briefly about some of the additional costs that are going to be on the General Fund budget in 2021, including more money for the department of corrections and the state’s required match for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program. Ivey last week announced the state will seek bids from four developers to create three large regional prisons, which would replace most of the existing state facilities.
The speaker said he expects statewide lottery legislation again next year. The 2019 proposal died in part because of opposition from some Republicans opposed to legalizing gambling and some lawmakers who wanted to allow electronic gambling machines at dog tracks so the tracks can compete with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ casinos.
McCutcheon doesn’t have an answer on how to solve all of the conflicting problems when it comes to passing a statewide lottery, but thinks if it does come up again, the bill needs to address all of them.
“Let’s address the Poarch Creek Indians and their compact and then let’s look at these counties that want the bingo machines,” McCutcheon said. “Let’s get them all in a room and let’s sit down and talk about it and try to get an answer.”
No matter the issue, McCutcheon told the county leaders that he would be sure to consider their concerns.
Brasfield said he was happy to hear McCutcheon say that and believes he will stick to his word.
“We’re going to have a seat at the table on all these issues,” Brasfield said. “On broadband, on rural health care, on prison reform.”