Gov. Robert Bentley says new prisons top priority this year

Gov. Robert Bentley said a plan to borrow $800 million to build four new state prisons will be his most important goal during the 2017 legislative session, which is two weeks away.

Another high priority is a $20 million increase in prekindergarten, which would be about a 30 percent increase and would advance the governor's goal to expand the program statewide.

During the last two years, Bentley has proposed tax increases, shifting money from education and establishment of a lottery to support the state budget.

But Bentley said the General Fund budget is in better shape for fiscal year 2018.

One reason for the brighter outlook is a plan lawmakers approved last year allocating money from a BP oil spill settlement to support Medicaid temporarily and to pay down General Fund debts.

Bentley discussed his goals for the session in a recent interview with AL.com.

Prisons

Last year, the governor proposed borrowing $800 million through a bond issue to build four new state prisons, three prisons for men and a replacement for Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Thirteen of the 15 existing men's prisons would close.

Versions of the plan passed both the House and Senate last year but failed to win final approval.

Bentley said he plans to introduce a similar proposal that will incorporate some changes proposed by lawmakers last year.

"It will be basically the same bill with the amendments on it so they won't have to worry about passing those amendments again," the governor said.

As of September, Alabama had about 23,000 prisoners in facilities designed for about 13,000, an occupancy rate of about 175 percent.

Overcrowding is not a new problem but makes it harder to deal with other pressing concerns.

In October, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was investigating the state's prisons. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson is conducting a trial on claims that mental health care for inmates fails to meet constitutional standards. A trial on similar claims about medical care is expected later this year.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told lawmakers in November that prison violence was rising and the number of corrections officers had dropped by 20 percent in five years.

Bentley and Dunn say the plan to build four new prisons, called the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, would be the most cost effective way to alleviate the overcrowding, under-staffing and other problems.

Modern prisons could operate safely with fewer corrections officers because of smarter designs and improved technology, Dunn has said.

Dunn and Bentley say new prisons would better accommodate education, vocational training and substance abuse treatment programs that help inmates succeed after release.

"That (new prisons) will alleviate part of our problem," Bentley said. "But we've got to look at this in a holistic way."

The governor said he was uncertain on whether he would call a special session to consider the prison plan.

Prekindergarten

Bentley has advocated for expansion of the state's prekindergarten program for years.

To a large extent, the Legislature has agreed, increasing funding steadily, from $19 million in 2013 to $64 million this year.

That has allowed an expansion from 217 classrooms with 3,906 students in 2013 to 811 classrooms with 14,598 this year.

The program, called First Class, now serves about one-fourth of the state's 4-year-olds, but Bentley wants to make it available statewide.

[Related: Gov. Bentley: Pre-k approach should extend through third grade]

"The reason we want to do that is because we have proof, statistical proof, that pre-k changes the numbers," Bentley said. "It truly does, and we've got the statistics to show that."

A report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, released in 2013, showed that students who attended First Class, including low-income students, performed better in elementary school.

The program has consistently won recognition for its quality because of learning standards, teacher qualifications, class sizes and other measures.

General Fund budget

Debates about how to close budget shortfalls have dominated legislative sessions the last two years. The governor said things have improved for fiscal year 2018.

"This will be our seventh budget that we've prepared," Bentley said. "And this has been the easiest of any budgets that we've prepared."

A key reason is that Medicaid, which spends more General Fund dollars than any other agency, will receive $105 million under a plan approved last year to allocate most of a $1 billion oil spill settlement from BP.

However, that funding boost for Medicaid ends after next year.

"The $105 million really helps this year," Bentley said. "Now next year is going to be difficult. But this year, it's good."

A traditional problem for the General Fund has been slow growing or stagnant sources of tax revenue. But that has changed somewhat, Bentley said.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill allocating more of the use tax to the General Fund and another bill that is increasing collections of taxes from internet sales. Those changes are putting more growth potential in the General Fund.

This year's education budget calls for spending $6.3 billion from the Education Trust Fund, the most since 2008, right before the recession cut deeply into the budget.

Bentley said he expects next year's education budget to be similar to this year's, with spending of about $6.4 billion from the ETF.

Bentley said a growing economy, with more people paying income taxes and spending more to boost sales taxes, means the state has more revenue to pay for government services.

"I'm very optimistic about how our state is doing right now," Bentley said. "I believe our economy is going to continue to improve."

Lottery and casinos

After Bentley's lottery proposal failed during last year's special session, he announced the creation of an Advisory Council on Gaming.

The council has held public meetings to gather information about state laws on gambling, lotteries, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians' casinos and other topics.

Bentley's executive order creating the commission called for it to give findings and recommendations to the governor and Legislature by Jan. 31.

But Bentley said the council won't meet that deadline and he granted an extension. He expects it to report in June.

"They are really having some good meetings," Bentley said. "I want them to come up with some ideas on how we can resolve this issue. Because ultimately, I still believe that the people have to resolve this."

Bentley said he wants the council to help develop a proposal that the Legislature could present to voters as a constitutional amendment. He said he did not direct the council toward any specific recommendation.

"They're taking it very seriously," Bentley said. "And I think we'll get something positive out of it to allow the people to finally vote on it. But we'll have to get it through the Legislature."

Some lawmakers have already filed lottery bills for this year's session, which starts Feb. 7.

Bentley is expected to outline his proposals during his annual state of the state speech that evening.

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