Gas & prisons

A left, a gas pump in Anniston. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/file). At right, prison bars at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. (Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star/file)

With two weeks left until the start of Alabama's legislative session, some of Calhoun County's lawmakers are feeling left in the dark about the session's biggest issues.

Some lawmakers are withholding judgment on Gov. Kay Ivey's prison-building plan and a proposal to raise the state's gas taxes, saying they need more detail than they're getting now.

"One of the things that bothers me about the gas tax is that we're two weeks out and we still don't have a bill in front of us," said Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville.

The Legislature convenes March 5 for its first session after the 2018 midterm elections. While some of the faces in the House and Senate are new, the issues in front of lawmakers are largely old business: prison overcrowding, crumbling roads and bridges and long-running debates over expanding Medicaid or creating a state lottery. But while lawmakers are feeling pressure to face off on those issues, many aren't clear on what they'll be asked to vote on — or if they'll get a chance to vote at all.

Prison plan

Gov. Kay Ivey last week announced a plan to build three large men's prisons, a bid to end overcrowding in a correctional system that holds 20,000 people, even though it's built for a little more than 13,000.

The Ivey plan sounds a lot like an earlier governor's prison proposal. Former Gov. Robert Bentley proposed an $800 million bond issue to build three large prisons, and close some existing facilities. The plan faltered in the Legislature over questions about which districts' prisons would be closed and who would get the contract to build new ones.

Ivey's plan seems to cut legislators out of the loop, at least for now. Ivey said the Department of Corrections would request bids for the prisons, then "work closely with the Legislature to determine the most cost-effective way to move forward." Lawmakers say a build-and-lease option might allow the department to use those prisons with money already available.

"I think this takes the politics out of it," said Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. "I'm glad she's doing it."

Still, Marsh says the project could land back in the lap of the Legislature if there are cost overruns.

"What we don't want is to get down the road and have them come back and ask for $50 million," he said.

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said lawmakers may be willing to accept the plan simply because it takes the decision-making burden off them.

"There are too many of us who don't have the courage to hit the issues on the head," she said.

Boyd was one of the earliest critics of conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women, where federal investigations in recent years revealed sexual abuse of inmates by male guards. Boyd said she's frustrated that Ivey's plan, like recent proposals, included no plan to replace Tutwiler, which was built in the 1940s.

Past prison proposals faltered in part because of regional issues, with lawmakers from communities with existing prisons agitating to keep them open. Ivey's plan makes no mention of closing existing prisons, but Brown said it's likely a question in the minds of many lawmakers.

"I wish they'd come to us with a proposal like that before they announce it in the newspaper," Brown said of the prison plan.

Gas tax

Raising the state's gas tax is high on the legislative leadership's priority list, though even supporters of the plan say they want to know more.

The state now charges 18 cents tax for every gallon of gas sold, money that goes to fixing and building roads. It's a per-gallon tax, not per-dollar, and it hasn't gone up since 1992.

"We've been running off the same dollars since 1992, and there's no way you can get away with that," Marsh said.

But no gas tax bill has been filed yet, and that has even sympathetic lawmakers reluctant to wholeheartedly endorse the plan.

"If we do what we say we're going to do with the funds that derive from the tax, and if it's distributed fairly, I can support it," Boyd said.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, said the state could save money in the long run if it keeps roads in better repair.

"If little Johnny has to get on the bus an hour earlier and get off an hour later because the bus can't go over a bridge, that's not saving money," he said. "We're wearing the buses out."

Still, he said he's not sure exactly what's in the gas tax plan.

"They haven't come up with the whole plan just yet," he said. "They have to come up with something."

Rep. Becky Norgdren, R-Gadsden, said she’s “in a quandary” over raising the gas tax. The state needs better roads, she said. But Nordgren, who has worked in sales for much of her career, said gas tax is a big expense for many sales people. She said many of those salespeople are now unable to write off gas as an expense on their taxes, due to changes in federal tax law.

“I have a ‘tax as a last resort’ philosophy,” said Rep. Ginny Shaver, R-Centre, whose district includes Piedmont.

She said she’s been riding the roads in the district and listening to what local leaders have to say about the issue.

“Our counties are really hurting for funds,” she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.