Ala. governor pushes $800M prison construction plan

Gov. Robert Bentley said overcrowding and understaffing had proven a "deadly combination" within prison walls


By Kim Chandler 
Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley used his State of the State address Tuesday evening to promote his $800 million prison construction plan, saying overcrowding and understaffing had proven a "deadly combination" within prison walls.

The governor is proposing an $800 million bond issue to finance construction of three new large regional prisons for men and one new prison for women. Speaking on the first day of the legislative session, Bentley said crowded and aging prisons were unsafe for those working and confined there.

"We cannot afford to wait any longer to solve this lingering, difficult and deadly problem," Bentley told lawmakers.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley speaks during the annual State of the State address at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley speaks during the annual State of the State address at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The administration has launched a full-court press for the legislation this year after it failed in 2016.

Recently, lawmakers and reporters were taken on tours of state prisons and shown crowded conditions, a collapsed kitchen floor and other expensive maintenance in Depression-era buildings. "Officers are outmanned by inmates and are stretched to their limits," Bentley said.

In his address Tuesday, the governor also paid tribute to corrections officer Kenneth Bettis, who was fatally stabbed last year by an inmate at a south Alabama prison.

"I attended Bettis' memorial last year, and I met his grieving widow. I pray I never have to attend another memorial for another Alabama corrections officer," he said.

The construction proposal faces an uncertain future in the Alabama Legislature. Lawmakers have questioned the Department of Corrections' projections that a bond issue can be paid for with savings reaped from the consolidation of existing facilities.

"I think we've got to do something and we probably have to build some new prisons but I'm just not sold on the fact that we can pay for it with savings," said Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

The bill is expected to hit the legislative fast track and will be up for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. "We've got a lot of work to do. The good thing is most people you talk to recognize you've got to do something," Sen. Cam Ward, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said.

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Here's a look at other highlights of the governor's address:

PREKINDERGARTEN

Bentley has made a goal of trying to expand access to the state's small but lauded prekindergarten program so that every 4-year-old child in the state has an opportunity to attend.

Bentley said an additional $20 million for the program would allow another 160 more prekindergarten classrooms to open.

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NO MENTION OF POLITICAL UPHEAVAL

Bentley's speech made no mention of last year's upheaval in Alabama politics that saw lawmakers fire up a now-stalled impeachment investigation against the governor, as well two other high-ranking Republicans removed from their duties.

Former House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted of ethics charges. Also, Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended from office for his actions regarding same-sex marriage.

The House Judiciary Committee last year began an impeachment investigation of Bentley. The probe was paused in November because the attorney general said his office was doing related work. Twenty-three lawmakers filed impeachment articles against Bentley after he was accused of having an affair with his political adviser, Rebekah Mason. Bentley acknowledged making personal mistakes, but denied having a sexual affair or doing anything legally wrong. Mason, whose husband heads Bentley office of faith-based and volunteer services, attended the State of the State speech with her husband.

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REMOVING SALES TAX ON FOOD

Bentley said he wants to create a study commission to look at the feasibility of removing the state sales tax on food. Alabama is one of a handful of states that levies a sales tax on food.

"Every family in Alabama should be able to find a good job and feed their families without being overly taxed," Bentley said.

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PRAISE FOR TRUMP

Bentley said the election of President Donald Trump "has ushered in a truly remarkable time in our state's history."

"State's and their governors are enthusiastic about the Trump administration because finally we are being heard, concerns are being met and action is being taken," Bentley said.

Bentley, a dermatologist who maintains his medical license, said, "states are finally being afforded the opportunity to have a strong voice in the repair or replacement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act."

Bentley drew some of his loudest applause of the night when he spoke against "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants.

Associated Press
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