It’s the first year of a new term for all of Alabama’s 140 state legislators, and there will be a host of pressing issues waiting for them in Montgomery as the 2019 regular session begins Fat Tuesday.
A possible gas tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements, gambling bills, reforms to Alabama’s ethics laws and Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to build new state prisons are just a few of the subjects legislators are expected to consider between March 5 and June 18.
After securing her first full term in office, Ivey clearly indicated during her inaugural address Jan. 19 that repairing the state’s ailing infrastructure is among her top priorities.
“If we want to compete in a 21st century global economy, we must improve our infrastructure by investing more in our roads, our bridges and our ports,” Ivey said. “It has been nearly three decades since we last made any changes to our current funding, and the challenge has grown with the passing of time. Now is the time to solve this problem.”
While no specific figure has been proposed, the controlling party has shown a willingness to consider increasing Alabama’s gas tax for the first time since 1992. Joining Ivey, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, have already expressed support for an increase.
Alabama’s current gas tax rate is 18 cents per gallon, which includes an inspection fee of 2 cents.
However, according to the American Petroleum Institute, the total gas tax in Alabama — including an 18.4 cent federal gas tax and an average of local gas taxes — is roughly 39.5 cents per gallon. Though, that is less than most other states and the national average of 52.2 cents.
State Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, who serves as Speaker Pro Tempore and was first elected to the office in 1982, said he usually doesn’t try to guess what issues may arise during the session, but believes a gas tax increase will almost certainly be considered this year.
As a local legislator, Gaston said his role will be to ensure the Gulf Coast is fairly considered in the distribution of any new revenue a potential tax increase might generate.
“A primary interest of mine, likely above anything else, will be in monitoring the legislation as it’s drafted, discussed and debated to see that the Alabama State Docks receives the funding it needs to address its infrastructure,” he told Lagniappe. “We remind legislators from around the state on a regular basis that it is indeed Alabama’s state docks.”
Gaston said he’s specifically interested in revenue the Legislature will need to identify in the future for Alabama’s share of a proposed expansion of the Mobile Shipping Channel.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently evaluating a proposal to dredge the 36-mile channel to an overall depth of 50 feet; if approved, Alabama would need to come up with 25 percent of what could be at least a $600 million project.
Even if a gas tax increase is able to gain support, divvying up the money it generates could be a political hurdle for coastal legislators. Speaking with Lagniappe, Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, warned it could lead to a “split” between legislators in northern and southern districts.
“The split between cities and counties would also be a huge battle,” he added.
Pringle said the distribution of those dollars could also be complicated by Alabama’s lack of a comprehensive five-year plan to prioritize infrastructure needs. For example, Pringle mentioned U.S. Route 98, which he claims has been, “part of a five-year plan for the last 40 years.”
Sen. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, seemed to favor a gas tax, but wanted to reserve judgment until more is known about what a legislative proposal might look like.
“The people using the roads should be the ones paying for the roads,” he said. “If you crunch the numbers, we’re past due for some infrastructure spending. At a dime per gallon, it would cost me an extra $2.60 to go up to Montgomery and come back each week, at most. You hate to do that, but then again, you need infrastructure.”
Across the aisle, Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said she has yet to see any formal proposal on a gas tax increase. However, she also said fair distribution of funding would be one of her concerns as those as those discussions begin in Montgomery.
“I won’t only be looking at distribution, but also how much we’re putting on taxpayers,” she said.
For freshman Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, ensuring coastal counties get their “fair share” of tax revenue was a cornerstone of his 2018 campaign. He has also often cited data suggesting Baldwin County sends far more gas tax and tourism revenue to Montgomery than is re-invested locally by the state.
Elliott was one of many local legislators who attended the annual meeting of the Coastal Alabama Partnership in Daphne Feb. 1, pledging to support its agenda, which includes securing funding for the shipping channel expansion as well as the long-discussed Interstate 10 bridge project.
“One of the positive things about the BP oil spill and the resulting theft of the settlement money by the state is that it galvanized legislators in the area,” Elliott said last week. “Now everyone is on message about what is important to coastal Alabama.”
Prison reform and construction
In her inaugural address, Ivey said “much like Alabama’s roads and bridges, our prison system has been sorely neglected for decades.” The neglect Ivey described has been highlighted by recent federal mandates in a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
After the SPLC sued Alabama over the substandard living conditions in its prisons, a federal judge also found the state’s “horrendously inadequate” treatment of mentally ill inmates violated the U.S. Constitution’s protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Legislators have taken steps some to address the situation since then, including a $55 million appropriation to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) last year to hire more mental health and medical staff. This year, Ivey is seeking an additional $31 million to hire “500 new correctional officers” and make ADOC salaries more competitive.
The governor is also turning her attention to prison overcrowding.
Ivey noted that despite recent strides to reduce populations, Alabama prisons are operating at 160 percent of their intended capacity. Her proposed solution is to build three new regional men’s prisons, one of which would focus on special-needs populations.
Proposals are currently being sought to get a better idea of what building these new corrections facilities might cost, but preliminary estimates from ADOC put the figure at around $900 million.
Ivey has maintained new construction would be cheaper than maintaining and upgrading the state’s existing prisons, some of which could close if her plan comes to fruition.
“Here in Alabama and across our country, we have a set of laws to which every person must adhere. However, no matter what crime was committed, every human being deserves a certain level of care,” Ivey wrote last week. “I say to you that it is, and will continue to be, costly to provide adequate living conditions and health care for the more than 20,000 adults in our corrections system, to maintain aging facilities and to sustain public safety.”
While some members of the Legislature have agreed with Ivey that an investment in Alabama’s prison system is necessary and in many ways unavoidable, Gaston said there are still unanswered questions about what role the Legislature will play in accommodating her current prison plan.
“It’s got to be acted on, and I think she’s absolutely right about the cost savings in the long run, but getting there is another issue,” he added. “I would think, no matter what, it will take some kind of bond issue, and the Legislature will have a key role to play in that.”
However, others are concerned Ivey could bypass the Legislature altogether. Elliott recently expressed concern over Ivey’s proposal because, according to him, her administration and the ADOC could theoretically move forward with the plan without any input from the Legislature by requesting proposals from private contractors.
Elliott has also said he’d like to explore cheaper solutions than building multiple prisons. Specifically, he mentioned the privately owned Perry County Correctional Facility near Uniontown, which currently houses only a handful of federal inmates, but reportedly has around 700 empty beds.
“There maybe we can spend $14 [million] to $15 million to purchase a facility that would probably cost in excess of $50 million to build and immediately reduce the prisoner-to-guard ratio,” he suggested. “I’d like to see where we can we find some inefficiencies — it’s my understanding there are many empty beds in county jails. I’m not saying there aren’t problems, but perhaps there are really low-cost alternatives.”
Gaston, Sessions, Drummond and others in the local delegation said they’re waiting to get more details from Ivey and the ADOC, though all said the state must address the problem.
However, Drummond said legislators “can’t build our way out of this issue” without other efforts to reduce overcrowding. If Ivey’s proposal doesn’t look at ways to improve re-entry programs and change state sentencing guidelines, Drummond said she’d likely have trouble supporting it.
“We have to look at a comprehensive plan that deals with overcrowding and re-entry,” she added. “If it doesn’t address these three issues, then I think we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Pringle, meanwhile, said there could be political considerations in the discussion about prison reform as well, adding opposition from legislators who represent districts with prisons could make any changes to the current system more difficult. That concern is not without precedent.
When former Gov. Robert Bentley tried to tackle Alabama’s prison problem with an $800 million plan to construct new facilities, it failed to pass the Legislature in 2016 and 2017, in part because of concerns about lost jobs in districts where existing prisons may have closed.
“Some senators aren’t in favor of a new plan because it means prisons in their districts will close,” Pringle said. “There’s going to have to be a compromise.”
According to Pringle, if politics cause Ivey’s plan to suffer the same fate as her predecessor’s, the end result could be a much more expensive solution in the form of a federal order forcing the state to fix the issue without input from the Legislature.
Local legislators seem confident this session will see yet another push to legalize gambling in the state. Drummond said she supports a referendum on the issue, but is hopeful that if it passes, funds will be used for education.
“There is not enough money going into the education system, from pre-K to higher education,” she said. “You get what you pay into it.”
That said, Marsh and other state leaders claim increases in the amount of state sales and income tax revenue has the Alabama Education Trust Fund poised to receive more funding than ever. The fund is projected to surpass $7 billion by 2020.
While some in the local delegation support a gaming bill outright, others have come to understand the lack of gambling or a lottery is especially costly for Alabama when it is available in neighboring states.
Sessions, for instance, is personally opposed to gambling, calling it a “voluntary tax on the poor,” but says he’d support a referendum to bring the issue before the people.
“I don’t particularly like gambling paying for government services,” he said. “But people say we have a lot of money leaving the state, and I understand that argument.”
Pringle also expects to see a gambling bill this session, but he’s leery of approving it without first setting parameters for regulation. The success of any gambling bill, he said, would depend on whether it’s clean, or whether it opens the state up to casino gaming.
“When the House made a bill for a ticketed lottery, the Senate killed it,” Pringle added.
Pre-filed bills, local legislation
The local legislative delegation has already been working with local judges on a bill called the Mobile County Preservation of Justice Act, which, if passed, would tack on additional filing fees ranging from $25 to $100 in civil, criminal and domestic relations cases filed in Mobile County.
There would be exceptions for things like juvenile cases, protection-from-abuse petitions and child support cases. Judges in the 13th Judicial Circuit agreed to pursue the legislation at the request of the Mobile County Commission, which has contributed nearly $700,000 since 2017 to help prevent catastrophic layoffs in local courts.
According to Gaston, judicial funding is still likely to be a statewide issue. Last year, the Legislature found an additional $2.5 million for Alabama’s judicial system, and Gaston said he was under the impression some of it was going to help stabilize courts in Mobile.
“The chief justice at the time [Lyn Stuart] … let’s say, had other priorities,” Gaston said. “I think there’s concern with constituents from every district in this state who deal with the court system, and many at one time or another do. The impact is significant in terms of the overall population.”
Also locally, Drummond has pre-filed a bill that would protect home and property owners from imminent domain concerns as Mobile Regional Airport begins to shift passenger service to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley.
While she supports the move, Drummond said there are concerns among longtime residents that they will lose their homes and won’t get fair market value for them. Drummond said she would like to see those owners get some kind of replacement cost.
She also joined legislative newcomer Rep. Shane Stringer, R-Satsuma, as a cosponsor on a pre-filed bill aiming to regulate the advertising, retail sale and retail store inspections of vape shops, also requiring those businesses to obtain a state permit.
Heading into his first legislative session, Elliott said he plans to put several proposals on the table. One would make targeting a first responder with violence a hate crime. Another would require voters to weigh in on city school system splits, rather than allowing new school systems to break off simply by the vote of a city council.
“Obviously we’ve had a ruckus over the school split in Gulf Shores,” he explained. “I’m not trying to prevent city schools from forming completely, but what my bill will propose is you have a vote of the people so the city council can’t unilaterally make that decision without an express buy-in of the people. I think that will give everybody a moment of pause and give everyone a chance to weigh the pros and cons.”
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