Inside The Statehouse
February 18, 2015:
The legislature and the governor are preparing for the first Regular Session of the quadrennium. The Session will begin March 3.
Legislators need to arrive in Montgomery with their lunch pails and sleeves rolled up ready to go to work because the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. They are facing a gargantuan budget crisis in the State General Fund. They cannot spend this four years cussing Obama Care and passing unconstitutional and meaningless bills dealing with federal issues like immigration and abortion.
They cannot kick the can down the road any longer. If they do not fix the cash strapped General Fund, they are going to start getting calls from angry constituents telling them that Aunt Susie is being kicked out of the nursing home and she’s coming to live with them, and their daughter went down to the courthouse to get her driver’s license on her 16th birthday and nobody was there to give her the test, and their wife was in a car accident on I-65 and she sat in the care for two hours until a state trooper arrived, and, by the way, there are a couple of state convicts hanging out in their front yard.
The legislature has a big hole to dig out of for next year. Those legislators who were proud of being placed on the budget committees during the organizational session may want to rethink their committee assignments. Their appointments may appear more like a prison sentence.
For the next fiscal year, the budget hole in just the General Fund is over $261 million. However, the projected shortfall over the next few years will be more like $700 million. The governor has to take the lead in steering the state out of this crisis. The governor proposes and the legislature disposes.
Gov. Bentley has said that the time has come when the state is not able to postpone dealing with the issue any longer. “Taxes would be the last thing I would look to as far as raising a new tax. But I cannot see getting through this without having to raise new revenue.” Bentley continued, “We’re broke and we don’t have enough money to cover what we owe.” In his defense, he did not cause the problem. He inherited it. His predecessor left the cupboard bare. Bob Riley spent any and all cash in the Rainy Day Funds and the federal stimulus money has run out.
It is no secret that the major culprits causing the dilemma in the General Fun are Medicaid and prisons. The governor is adamant that he does not want to expand Medicaid under the Federal Medicaid Expansion Act. He has consistently stood on the position that we cannot expand because we cannot afford what we have now.
The prison problem is pressing. Alabama’s prison system is at almost double its capacity. This overcrowding is creating safety problems and is teetering on an emergency situation. There may be some long-term solutions. Some of the problems could be alleviated by alternative sentencing measures. There has got to be other ways to punish crimes besides incarceration. Other states have had success taking this approach. State Senator Cam Ward has taken the lead in prison reform. He will be at the forefront of any reform measures.
In the meantime, any alternative sentencing guidelines will take years to implement. This crisis must be addressed immediately. The state will have to allot more funds for adequate jails or risk having a federal takeover of the State Prison System. There is a precedent for this in the State. The bill for the federal takeover was extremely expensive.
We will shortly see what the governor has to offer as solutions to the state’s financial woes. When the governor makes his proposals on March 3rd, the presiding officer in the House will be Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn). He has been indicted on 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his office for personal gain. His trial is set to begin in October.
Campaign records show he has spent close to $300,000.00 for legal fees using his campaign funds, which has been ruled allowable by an Attorney General’s opinion issued in 2000. The advisory opinion says that criminal defense costs can be paid out of campaign finance funds if the accusations are related to how theperson performed in office.
February 11, 2015:
As the legislature and governor prepare for the upcoming initial legislative session of the quadrennium, they are facing ominous and obvious problems. The General Fund is in dire straits, primarily due to the escalating costs of Medicaid and prisons.
The problems in the Prison System may be even more acute than with Medicaid. The reason is that our prison population is well in excess of what federal courts have determined is constitutional. There are federal judicial standards of humane care for prisoners and we currently are not within these guidelines. Therefore, we are on thin ice and shaky ground if our prison problems come before a federal judge.
The remedy they might adjudicate could be more expensive than our fixing the problem ourselves. History has a way of repeating itself. We have been dealt this card before in the Heart of Dixie.
We in the South have had a propensity, probably due to our heritage, of rebelling against the federal government. We seem to always come up on the short end of the stick. These losses have been very costly.
The history of federal intervention into our affairs is pronounced. The results have been expensive, devastating and usually avoidable.
The most famous and glaring federal intervention came in the 1960’s when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954 in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Alabama and the entire South had ignored the federal mandate. It came to a head here in Alabama with Gov. Wallace’s theatrical stand in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. Federal officials forced Gov. Wallace to stand down and allow two black students to attend the University.
The next year, the federal government, under the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, forced the state to desegregate all public schools. The following year, after the Selma to Montgomery march and whirlwind of civil rights marches and protests, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Up until that time, very few blacks could vote in the South.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. The Act also allowed for federal oversight over Alabama’s voting laws. African American Alabamians voted in mass in 1966.
Alabama’s Mental Health System became the subject of federal intervention in the 1970’s. The legislature cut an already paltry appropriation for mental health. A class action lawsuit followed. The case Wyatt v. Stickney centered on overcrowding and inhumane conditions in our mental institutions. A federal judge ruled that mental health patients have a right to a certain standard of care. The judge ordered restoration of the funding. It was not until 2003, close to 30 years later, that the Feds stopped overseeing our mental health facilities. The case wound up costing the state millions in court and compliance costs.
In 1985, a federal lawsuit was filed against Alabama’s Department of Transportation alleging that the Highway Department had discriminated against blacks in their hiring practices. At that time, the department had less than 10% black professionals and technicians. The plaintiffs won.
The federal court decree restrained the departments hiring until it reached the quota they desired. By 2003, 31 percent of the professionals and 25 percent of the technicians at ALDOT were black. This lawsuit has cost the state over $300 million and is still ongoing.
We have also seen federal intervention regarding our teacher testing standards. A federal court decree kept Alabama from testing our teachers for close to two decades.
In 2001, Chief Justice Roy Moore placed a Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Judicial Building. A federal judge ordered the monument removed in 2003. Judge Moore in a bold move, similar to George Wallace’s schoolhouse door stand, refused to obey the federal order. He was then removed from office.
The people of Alabama sent the Feds a message that they stood with Moore when they reelected him as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court in 2012.
When it comes to federal intervention, this current possible intrusion into our prisons will not be our first rodeo.