By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A prison crisis and gambling legislation are expected to be among this year’s major legislative issues as Alabama lawmakers returned to Montgomery on Tuesday.
They convened at noon to begin the legislative session that will stretch through mid-May.
Prisons will likely be a central focus after the U.S. Justice Department threatened to sue the state over prison conditions. The Justice Department last year said male inmates in Alabama live in violent, crowded prisons where conditions violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And in a case that focuses on prison mental health care, the state also faces a federal court order to add 2,200 corrections officers by 2022.
“If we don’t address them, the federal government will, and it could be at a federal government price tag instead of an Alabama price tag.” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is requesting a $42 million increase to help add more corrections officers. A criminal justice commission created by the governor is also recommending changes, including better educational programs for inmates, in hopes of reducing recidivism. The group also proposed some changes to mandatory sentencing laws.
Gov. Kay Ivey is considering a plan to lease three regional prisons and close most existing facilities.
“Whatever is built, we have to pay for it. … We just want to make sure that we solve the problem and don’t spent more money than we have to spend,” Marsh said.
Lottery and gambling legislation is expected to be another major topic for lawmakers.
“The biggest issue that is going to come up is probably going to be gaming,” said Democratic Rep. Pebblin Warren.
Republican Rep. Steve Clouse of Ozark said he will introduce a lottery bill that would use lottery profits to fund pre-kindergarten and also provide college scholarships.
Alabama is one of the few states without a state lottery. Past bills have failed amid a fatal mix of conservative opposition to gambling and a turf war over who can operate electronic gambling machines. Lawmakers last approved lottery legislation in 1999, but state voters rejected the measure.
“We have moved the needle a little bit with public opinion and with legislative votes for a lottery. … I think we are in a better position to debate it this year than we have been,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said.
The lottery debate comes as the Poarch Band of Creek Indians have launched a “Winning for Alabama” public relations campaign for their effort to secure a state compact. Legislators whose districts include dog racing tracks have argued the tribe should not have a monopoly on electronic gambling machines.
Warren said the dog track in her district, VictoryLand, is as important to Macon County as auto plants have been to other areas of the state.
Other topics expected to come before state lawmakers this year include medical marijuana, increased funding for mental health services, making kindergarten mandatory and abolishing the need to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun.