Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: Is Bentley shifting to the left on Alabama's prison system and general fund?

  In 1967 when Lurleen Wallace became governor, one of her first missions included a trip to Bryce Mental Hospital in her native Tuscaloosa. The conditions she saw at Alabama’s primary mental health facility were beyond deplorable. It was a heart wrenching, Damascus road experience for the demure and soft-spoken lady. However, she roared like a lion with determination to remedy this blight on the state. She implored her husband’s legislature to appropriate significant increases in the mental health budget and she passed bond issues to relieve overcrowding.

  Our current governor, Robert Bentley also a Tuscaloosan, may have had a similar conversion experience a few months ago. Our state prisons are in a crisis situation. The ghastly horror stories that have come out this year surrounding our largest women’s prison facility have reverberated around the nation. We are teetering on the verge of federal courts taking over our prisons. The population is well beyond what the courts view as being within basic human rights guidelines. The revelation at Julia Tutwiler prison further exacerbated the crisis.

  Our kindly country doctor governor toured Tutwiler in early March and quietly said, "We are probably going to have to build some new prisons in my second term." This is probably foreshadowing what we will see in a second Bentley administration. You may see the governor move from the right to the middle of the political spectrum on the need for some new revenue for the beleaguered General Fund. It cost money to build prisons and to simply perform the basic functions of state government.

  The General Fund has had no new revenue enhancement measures in 30 years. There are several benign measures that would be easy to tap. Our cigarette tax is the lowest in the southeast. A state lottery would pass overwhelmingly if the legislature would allow people to vote on it, and there must be some creative ways to tax the Indian casinos that are hauling in millions of untaxed profits from low income Alabamians.

  Several other issues have remained unresolved in this quadrennium and will be the subject of debate during this year’s campaigns. These issues will be at the forefront for the new legislative session beginning next year. The 2015 legislature may again look at rewriting Alabama’s lengthy and cumbersome state constitution article by article. Our Alabama Constitution was written in 1901 and is the longest of any state with more than 800 amendments.

  Every election year candidates espouse one prevalent theme, "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs." We are creating industrial jobs in Alabama. However, we are buying them with tax abatements. This is depleting tax dollars that would go towards education in the state. We may need to do more to help our small business owners who do not get any tax breaks. We also need to invest heavily in technical job training in the state.

  Education issues will be at the center of the spectrum of discussion next quadrennium. How do we improve education for students? Has this term’s legislature hurt education by lowering teachers’ salaries over the last four years? Have programs like the Alabama Accountability Act hurt public education in the state? Will charter schools be the next initiative mounted by conservatives?

  The most talked about issue this year was the Common Core issue. It was tabled and swept under the rug during this year’s legislative session. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be front and center when the new legislature convenes in 2015. It has been a hot topic of debate during this year’s legislative contests.

  Legislators will be asked again to decide whether to support the national Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Governor Bentley and the current legislative leadership are adamantly opposed to accepting this expansion. They say we cannot afford what we have now, much less more cost. It is doubtful that the governor or a Republican legislature will change their position on this issue. We will see.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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