The 2020 legislative session, which began last week, will be the second session of Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration. For the second straight year, she and the legislature will be facing a major obstacle.
The prison problem is the paramount issue for the year. The state must address and resolve this dilemma or the federal authorities will take over our prisons.
The U.S. Justice Department has decreed the constitutional rights of inmates are being violated because they are in overcrowded conditions which can lead to extreme violence. The federal justice officials say overcrowding and excess violence is caused by a shortage of staff and beds for inmates.
Our men’s prisons are at 170% of the system’s capacity. In the past few weeks it has gone from bad to worse with a forced transfer of more than 600 inmates from Holman Prison. Our Holman correctional facility is generally where our most hardened criminals are housed.
Ivey and this legislature did not cause this problem. It has been building up and festering for years. The chickens have just come home to roost under her watch but she is attempting to handle the problem adroitly.
The governor and her administration have worked openly and pragmatically with the justice department in clearly defined negotiations. It might be added the justice department has worked congruently and candidly with the Ivey administration and given it clear guidelines in order to avoid federal intervention.
Ivey and the justice department are taking a harmonious approach, which is a far cry from the Gov. George Wallace versus Judge Frank Johnson demagogic rhubarb of past years. In that case, the state lost and we lost in a big way. When the federal courts take over a state’s prison system, they dictate and enforce their edicts and simply give the state the bill. It is a pretty large, unpredictable price tag. The feds always win.
Ivey will take information from a study group she appointed, led by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Champ Lyons as well as negotiate with the justice department and offer proposals they need from the legislature along with administrative decisions to remedy the prison problem.
Leading the legislative efforts will be State Sen. Cam Ward who has been the lead dog in the prison reform efforts. The problem hopefully will be resolved during this session.
Ivey will not use the approach she did last year with rebuild Alabama when she adjourned the regular session and placed the legislature in special session to address the issue on a solo stand-alone platform. It will be tackled within the confines of the regular session. If the solution is to build three new, modern men’s prisons, the state will be faced with some heavy lifting because the big question becomes how do we pay for them?
The answer may be in a lottery. For the umpteenth year, a proposal to let Alabamians vote to keep the money from lottery tickets in our state coffers. We are one of only four states in America who derive no money from lottery proceeds. We are surrounded on all four sides of our state by sister Southern states that reap the benefits of our citizens’ purchase of lottery tickets. This could be the year the legislature votes to allow their constituents the right to vote yes or no to keep our own money.
You can bet your bottom dollar that if it gets on the ballot, it will pass. Alabamians, both Democratic and Republican, will vote for passage. Even if they do not have any interest in purchasing a lottery ticket. They are tired of seeing their money go to Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi or Florida. Those that like to buy them are tired of driving to our neighboring states to give them money for their school children and roads.
It also may have a better chance of getting to the voters this year because the sponsor, Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) is a respected veteran and Chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee. His proposal is also a very simple paper lottery.
However, for the first time Ivey addressed the issue in her State of the State Address. She is calling for a study commission on the subject which could further delay our having a lottery.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.