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Prisons, lottery, raises, mental health on legislative agenda

State House

(Photo via Alabama Daily News)

Alabama's 2020 legislative session begins Tuesday in Montgomery, where the state's prison crisis and another effort to let Alabamians vote on a lottery promise to be must-watch issues. There's also the state's budgets, both with more money and more demands in 2021, and possible raises for state employees and teachers.

Increased mental health services, which most agree haven't been properly addressed in years, and legalizing medical marijuana are also on the table.

Gov. Kay Ivey will give her third State of the State speech Tuesday evening.

“You can expect to hear Gov. Ivey laud the momentum Alabama is experiencing, while also being very upfront on the areas that need improvements,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “Her attention remains focused on the upcoming census, the state’s criminal justice system, education and health care, and I am confident we will be hearing her go into more detail on those items.”

Here's a look at some of the issues expected to be debated.

‘Accessibility’ to education legislation coming

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, last week told Alabama Daily News he’s working on education legislation and cited Alabama’s low standings in national rankings as the reason change is needed. Marsh’s legislation isn’t yet publicly available, but he said it will focus on “accessibility.”

“That every parent and student have access to a good education,” Marsh said. He’s long been a proponent of school choice, including charter schools and the Alabama Accountability Act, which offers tax credits and scholarships to help students attend private schools.

“I’m of the appetite to do something much larger to address the problem, but I need to see how my colleagues feel,” Marsh said. “... I think the timing is right, I think people on both sides of the aisle want to do something, we’ll just see how big they want to go,” he said.

Separately, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said she expects a bill clarifying the funding of charter schools. Her 2015 legislation allowed for the creation of the publicly funded schools that operate outside traditional schools’ guidelines.

“There needs to be some clarification for the funding, just so when (charter schools) come in, they know exactly what their funding will be,” Collins, chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, said.

Lottery, gambling

It’s been more than 20 years since Alabamians rejected a constitutional amendment to allow a lottery in Alabama. More recent legislative efforts to give voters another chance have failed, largely over State House fights about how lottery revenue would be spent and how it would affect existing electronic gambling in the state. A lottery bill that would have sent proceeds to the General Fund, to support non-education agencies, cleared the Senate last year but died in the House.

This year, efforts will start with a bill from Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark. His proposal would split lottery revenue between the state’s pre-K program and college scholarships.

“Last year, it was evident in the House that the money had to go to education,” Clouse said. “I think it’s generally been accepted around the nation that lottery money should go toward education.” 

The proposal coincides with Gov. Ivey’s Strong Start, Strong Finish education initiative for pre-K through post-secondary, Clouse said. Currently, the state’s award-winning voluntary pre-K program is only funded to reach about 40 percent of the state’s 4-year olds.

“There’s plenty of room for growth,” Clouse said.

But not all lawmakers agree with committing all lottery revenue to education. While revenues differ depending on the types of games allowed, previous estimates on a basic lottery put revenues around $166 million a year.

“I’ve always supported the lottery, but I won’t support this if it’s just for education,” longtime Rep. Lynn Greer said. He doesn’t agree with earmarking all revenue for pre-k and college scholarships when there are other needs.

“They want to put half of it into a play school — we need to teach kids to read and write, we need to get more teachers and we need to pay them more,” Greer, R-Rogersville, said.

Greer said he wants some of the money to go into the General Fund and flexibility in spending from year to year.

Clouse said he expects debate on his bill.

“There will be other recommendations for the money. That’s fine. We’ll just see where the conversation goes,” he said.

Some of that talk will likely include the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ recent proposal to pay the state $225 million for the exclusive right to operate casino games in Alabama. The Poarch Creek now have three casinos in the state. The proposal includes the exclusive right to casino games at the existing casinos and at two additional north Alabama sites. The state would also receive a negotiated share of the revenue annually. The tribe projected it could boost state revenue by $1 billion including revenue sharing, taxes and license fees, the Associated Press reported last year. The Poarch Creek also support a lottery.

State House leaders’ reactions are mixed on that proposal.

“They have approached it in a way that makes sense,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, the Senate General Fund budget committee chairman and whose district includes the Atmore casino and tribe offices.

“Right now, as far as I know, that’s the only plan out there,” Albritton said. “That (revenue) would resolve the issues we have in Alabama.”

Not everyone is convinced.

“I think there’s a few issues that need to be discussed,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said. “We’re not trying to create a monopoly for one group when it comes to gambling. We need to keep it competitive. I would hope there is some room in there for negotiations and compromise.” 

Clouse said he sees the lottery and the Poarch Creek offer as two separate issues. The lottery will require a vote of the people and doesn’t need the governor’s signature. A compact with the Poarch Creek would require approval from the governor's office.

Prisons, criminal justice reform

Prison crowding and conditions aren't new topics in the State House, but this year includes the looming threat of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over violence, inmate deaths, crowding and staffing shortages in state prisons. Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Corrections last week closed most of a major prison because of deteriorating utilities. Several other prisons are 50 years old or older and need hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of maintenance. 

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said he sees prison reform as one of the top issues lawmakers will deal with, but they won’t know what they are dealing with until Ivey shows the details of her proposals. 

A study commission created last year by Ivey recommended last week that the state make a push to reduce recidivism, undertake sentencing reform and increase oversight and spending on prisons, the AP reported.

“There’s just a couple of things we need to do, like for instance, building new facilities,” Wood said. “I’m going to wait until we can get a chance to see it and then, we’ll try.”

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who is on the commission, said he expects four or five bills this session, including some changes to the habitual offender act and more education and workforce training.

“Let’s deal with it, once and for all,” Ward said. 

According to Speaker McCutcheon, the House will take the lead on the prison reform issue. 

“We’re really focusing on recidivism, educating the workforce population so they can get a job when they get in the community and be productive,” McCutcheon said. “We feel like we may have addressed sentencing reform (in previous sessions), but we haven’t addressed the recidivism issue.” 

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said more should be done to keep people from ever entering prison.

“One way we could help criminal justice reform is look at how we fund education and the Legislature needs to be more in touch and make sure children are getting the resources that they need to minimize children dropping out of school,” Moore said.

Separate from reform legislation, Ivey has been moving forward to get bids from companies to build three large prisons. The proposals are expected this spring. Lawmakers will be out of session by mid-May.

Because of that, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he doesn’t expect much for lawmakers to do regarding construction. Funding prison operations will be their focus.

“We’ve got to spend more money to hire more correctional officers,” Orr said.

“I think the governor does construction without us,” Ward said. “Construction alone isn’t going to fix this, but it’s part of the equation.” 

Still, several lawmakers say they expect to be part of the new prison conversation. 

“At some point, we have to appropriate the money,” Clouse said.

“Our main concern right now is: What is the price tag and can we afford it?” Marsh said. “At the end of the day, the Legislature has to fund it.”

And while Ivey's efforts are focused on three new facilities for men, Rep. Daniels, the Democratic House leader, thinks replacing Tutwiler, the state's main female prison, should be considered.

“You can’t have a conversation about the men’s facilities without including the women's,” he said.

Budgets

The 2021 General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets are expected to have more revenue available, and lawmakers soon will be sorting through substantial increase requests from many agencies — Medicaid, Prisons, Mental Health, and schools, to name a few.

Ivey next week will send her budget proposals to lawmakers and the Senate will get the General Fund first. Albritton said prisons, Medicaid and mental health will be among the high-profile agencies in the session.

“Medicaid will have the biggest increase, they usually do,” Albritton said. 

In 2021, Medicaid, the agency that provides health insurance for nearly a million low-income and disabled Alabamians, needs $805 million from the General Fund, up from $703.4 million this year. That doesn’t include a $37 million carry-forward the agency expects.

Much of Medicaid’s services are federally mandated, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room for budget makers.

Another significant ask with limited room for negotiation may be from prisons. Corrections is asking for a $41 million increase, mostly to help hire new staff as mandated by a federal judge. 

In the education budget, Orr said there are a lot of programs that need funding, including for those students whose first language isn’t English, for reading coaches in elementary schools and for the award-winning pre-K program.

“All those things are important, but I feel there is a real sense of urgency from legislators for improving outcomes,” said Orr, pointing to a national report card from 2019 that in 2019 ranked Alabama students dead last in math.

The education budget, which has $7.1 billion available this year, will start in the House this session.

“I think the Legislature has very methodically and purposely increased it’s pre-k funding each fiscal year for a number of years, and I would anticipate some increase again. I think there is going to be a very significant amount of discussion and analysis of mental health issues in schools, early literacy and implementation of the Literacy Act,” Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said. He chairs the House education budget committee.

“We have to get our reading proficiency levels up, and same for math. (There will be) a lot of early grade level math discussion and analysis. Why are we last in the country? How do we position our children to improve those math scores and to trend far better than we have been in those scores, particularly in early grades?”

Mental health services will be part of both the General Fund and education budget discussions. The Alabama Department of Mental Health recently told lawmakers it wants $18 million to create three crisis diversion centers around the state.

Orr, who is also on the General Fund Committee, said he supports the creation of the centers, which advocates have said will keep people in crises out of jails and local hospitals.

“I think the impact on the local jails, where local sheriffs and counties are having to deal and pay for inmates with mental health issues, is a factor,” Orr said.

Meanwhile, mental health and education officials have been discussing how to get more counseling for school students. Rep. Collins, chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, has invited K-12 and mental health leaders to her committee’s first meeting this week.

“I’m hoping there is a plan we can get behind,” Collins said.

Teacher, state employee raises

The state’s teacher shortage will likely be addressed in the education budget, Collins said. A study group in 2019 recommended nearly two dozen tactics for recruiting and retaining teachers, including higher salaries and, better benefits and incentives for teachers in high needs areas.

Orr, the Senate education budget chairman, said he favors paying teachers more instead of changing their benefits. 

“Let’s pay them on the front end,” he said. He wants to see a focus on getting more STEM teachers.

“There is a tremendous need for teachers with expertise. So many systems don’t have enough of them," Orr said.

McCutcheon and others said raises for public school educators and state employees are likely.

“Our economy is strong, our budgets are strong, so that’s part of the discussion, a raise for our educators as well as state employees,” McCutcheon said.

Orr said he expects raises for teachers in the range of 2 percent to 3 percent.

Lawmakers will also have to consider whether additional funding is needed for teacher or employee health insurance or retirement funding.

“The bottom line is that we want to protect their benefit packages, then raises will come once we’ve looked at those numbers,” McCutcheon said. 

Medical marijuana

Advocates for medical marijuana, including Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, are trying again this year with legislation allowing people with specified conditions access to cannabis.

A bill passed the Senate last year, but had less support in the House.

“I think people need to put away their stereotypes and realize that people who need it really do need it,” Melson, a medical doctor, said. “It’s easy to be against something when your family member or friend or co-worker doesn’t need it. When someone you care about does, you realize the benefits.”

Melson said he’s been told the bill will get a vote on the House floor this year.

Last month, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote to lawmakers to express his opposition to medical marijuana. First, he said, the substance is still banned under federal law. Second, Marshall then compared marijuana to opioids and said it is an addictive drug.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states allow for medical marijuana. 

Melson’s bill has not yet been made public. 

Alabama Daily News reporters Caroline Beck, Devin Pavlou and Abby Driggers contributed to this report.

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