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Lawmakers break down challenges, priorities for legislative session

Updated: Feb. 7, 2017 at 8:26 AM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama lawmakers begin a new legislative session Tuesday. Governor Robert Bentley has made it clear his number one priority this year is prisons, and he's proposing the same prison bill that failed last year.

"I'm optimistic," said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, about the plans chance for success this time around. "It's important to the Governor and it's important to the state."

The $800 million plan would build four new super-prisons and close 14 existing prisons in Alabama. It's Governor Bentley's solution to Alabama prisons 175 percent capacity, with a declining number of correction officers and an increasing number of violent incidents.

"I think we have to reach back and look at the prison reform bill we passed a few sessions ago in order to do some things to ease that overcrowdedness," Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, argued. "$800 million is a pretty big price tag to build new prisons, but the idea is about making sure that we have a rehabilitation procedure that's going to provide opportunities for individuals to be released, non-violent offenders to be released to be able to find a way to get back into society."

"We have a real problem with overcrowding in the prisons, that's what this is trying to address," Sen. Marsh explained. "We're also trying to address vocational training so that as people get out of prison they don't return. We've got mental health treatment issues we've been discussing."

The Governor has suggested he may call a special session within the regular session to isolate the focus on the state's prison system, at risk of a federal takeover.

The Alabama Legislature's only constitutional requirement is to pass the education and general fund budgets. Everyone agrees the general fund will be the biggest challenge.

"The general fund is hurting," Sen. Ross said. "We need extra revenue in that fund, so we have to think about some solutions together, some bipartisan solutions in order to increase the funding there." The battle will be over which agencies take priority in the general fund.

"We want to try to fully fund Medicaid, we want to make sure that we can provide for those essential services that citizens depend on on a regular basis," said Ross.

"You've also got to deal with the prison situation, children's services, the courts," argued Marsh. "There are a lot of demands on the general fund, and not a lot of growth there, so we're going to do the best we can."

Marsh expects $100 million dollars in BP Oil Settlement money to be used to balance this year's budget, but that's one-time money that won't be available down the road. "Next year is where we're looking ahead, because we know that we're $100  million short of the next budget year."

The House and the Senate convene at Noon Tuesday.

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