Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey made it official and announced a special session of the Alabama Legislature, tasking it with finding a solution to the state’s long-standing prison problem.
There are many reasons to be skeptical of the Legislature’s ability to pull it off.
Haven’t we seen this play before? A governor calls the Legislature into a special session, the clock runs out before a bill can make it to the floor for an up or down vote, and then it’s “Better luck next year!”
This time it will be different — maybe. There is something for everyone.
The early draft of a potential $1.34 billion plan includes two mega-prisons: one in Escambia County near Atmore and another in Elmore County near Wetumpka. Also on the table is the purchase of a private prison facility in Perry County near Uniontown and rehabbing existing facilities in Jefferson, Limestone, Bullock and/or Barbour Counties.
The urgency stems from repeated warnings from the U.S. Department of Justice for Eighth Amendment violations, which the department finally followed through on with legal action last year.
In the past, the obstacles have ranged from ideological opposition to borrowing for prisons from the right, ideological opposition to incarceration from the left and the shamelessness of legislators defending the self-interest of their House and Senate districts across the aisle.
Now with a Republican supermajority in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature, which has seemingly kept its hyper-ideological members at bay throughout the quadrennium, the votes are there.
We can assume this because why would Ivey otherwise call a special session of the Legislature if it could fail?
Perhaps overlooked in all of this is how voters might respond to the Legislature’s efforts.
Fortunately for incumbents, Alabama politics is grossly overshadowed by national politics. Afghanistan, vaccine mandates and the border crisis are far more concerning for a likely in-state voter than prisons or gas tax increases.
However, give us a sex scandal involving a sitting governor, and we are all tuned in.
Ivey’s pushback against the Biden administration was a well-timed gesture. No longer is she seen as the COVID-19 lockdown “Mee-Maw” by many, but a warrior for the cause against government overreach.
Meanwhile, her administration had been hard at work hammering down the details of the prison agreement.
Aside from federal COVID-19 relief money, the state’s general fund budget, which is everything that is not related to education, has accrued an unexpected $150 million surplus since the Legislature adjourned sine die back earlier this year.
The state will pull off new prison construction by paying cash, at least in part.
Fortuitous as that seems, when the government is taking in more money than it needs and when those in charge operate under the banner of conservatism, it is time to give some of that money back to the taxpayers. But more on that to come.
Can Democrats get a “deal” out of the agreement?
Even conservatives may show some hesitancy supporting a prison plan while hospitals are overrun with COVID patients.
The best play here for outnumbered Democrats is to raise a stink with a ready-made bumper sticker slogan about the GOP putting prison beds ahead of hospital beds.
According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services and compiled by the New York Times, Alabama is at 105 percent occupancy of its intensive care unit beds as the COVID-19 Delta variant wreaks havoc on the state.
Even with the Department of Justice threatening the state, would it be moral to build prisons instead of putting money into a beleaguered hospital system?
“Yeah, but this is a global pandemic. No one could have possibly foreseen such a run on hospitals with so many sick from the coronavirus.”
Alabama maxed out its occupancy earlier in the summer. Meanwhile, the national average is at 68 percent, while Alabama is at 105 percent.
Whatever one wants to say about getting vaccines and wearing masking, the one certainty is Alabama’s hospital system is woefully inadequate for treating the state’s COVID-19 patients.
It is widely believed the political establishment in Montgomery wants the state to expand Medicaid. Ideologies and party labels are left at the door when there is a potential buck to be made.
In the past, overtures to expand Medicaid, an option offered after court challenges to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, have fallen on deaf ears.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox tried to make it a central focus in his 2018 failed gubernatorial bid. It has yet to catch on with voters.
Although one hopes the pandemic subsides, if Alabama’s hospitals continue to struggle and COVID-19 persists as the ground is being broken for two new mega-prisons, it is worth wondering how voters may react.
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