By Steve Flowers
The premier issue of this year’s legislative session will be whether to borrow a massive amount of money to build new prisons in the state. This initiative appears to be our lame duck Governor Robert Bentley’s primary agenda.
Last year Bentley proposed an $800 million bond issue for new prisons. He has come forward with a similar proposal this year. His plan would close all existing prisons and replace them with three new super men’s prisons and one smaller women’s prison.
Folks, $800 million is a lot of money. There is no question that we have a prison problem. Alabama’s prison population is at 175% of capacity. It is among the highest in the nation. This overcrowding obviously causes violence and safety problems for our prison guards.
The federal courts are probably on the verge of dosing out some kind of remedy for our prisons. The courts took over the California prisons a couple of years ago with a lower overcrowding ratio than ours is now.
It is a tough spot for legislators. Funding prisons is not a popular reelection issue. There are several questions that would have to be answered if I were a legislator addressing this serious problem.
First, if I were going to put this state in debt for that amount of money I would have to ask the imperative question, “How in the world are you going to pay for the debt?”
There needs to be absolute, concrete, valid, exact revenue sources to make the payment. It is doubtful that any banker would loan someone any money if the vague pie in the sky ambiguous reply was, “Well, the prisons will be more efficient and therefore the savings will probably be enough to pay the note.”
Probably ain’t going to get it is what I am afraid the banker would say to the borrower. The last time I checked there was no growth revenue in the General Fund.
So hoping that there might be new revenue growth is also wishful thinking.
You simply have to put dollars and cents to exactly how much you save with these nuts and bolts and how you are going to pay the bond indebtedness. Otherwise you are buying a pig in a poke. In addition, the crazy point is that these ultramodern new prisons still leave us with overcrowded prisons. Therefore, it does not solve the problem.
Another question that would have to be answered is why does the governor’s proposal require that the new prisons be designed and built by one company with a one-time exemption to the state bid laws. That just does not meet the smell test. That simply looks corrupt and, as they say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be a duck.
Finally, if I were a legislator from a county or neighboring county that had a state prison located in my area, hell would freeze over before I would let the governor close it. I would rather cast a vote dissolving my county than vote to borrow $800 million in order to close down one of my area’s largest employers. Just ask the people in Elmore, Escambia, St. Clair, Limestone and Bibb what it would mean for their county economics if they closed their prisons. The prisons in Barbour and Bullock counties are the largest employers in their counties.
Filibuster would have a new meaning if one of those prisons was in my Senate district. I would tell them in a New York minute, “that dog won’t hunt.” Besides, when the legislature last built new prisons in the aforementioned locales during the last Wallace administration they bought plenty of extra land around those prisons for future expansions. Gerald Wallace made sure of that.
The good thing for you, the Alabama taxpayer, is that this bond issue probably will not pass simply because Bentley is for it. He is essentially a deterrent to anything passing in the legislature.
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.