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2017 legislative session gets underway at AL statehouse

Updated: Feb. 7, 2017 at 4:47 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - With the pounding of a gavel Tuesday, Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon officially started the 2017 legislative session. Little happened on the first day beyond mostly procedural matters.

State prisons are going to be Gov. Robert Bentley's top priority for the session. He's proposing the same plan that failed in the legislature last year. It's an $800 million plan that would build four new "super prisons" and close 14 existing state prisons.

Something has to be done with Alabama's prison system. Prisons are at 175 percent capacity, the number of corrections officers are decreasing, and the number of violent incidents are increasing. A federal takeover is a real threat if major changes aren't made.

[EXTRA: 5 issues to watch in the 2017 session]

Lawmakers have expressed concerns about what the closing of those 14 facilities would mean for the communities where they're located, and there are obvious concerns about the more than three-quarters of a billion dollar price tag.

"We are not going to try and push this bill through," Speaker McCutcheon said. "We are going to have a good debate about it, we are going to get the questions answered that are out there for the members, and we are going to let the votes fall where they fall."

Gov. Bentley will lay out his priorities Tuesday night in the annual State of the State address.

BUDGETS

The legislature's only constitutional responsibility is to pass the Education and General Fund budgets, and they'll be tight this year since $100 million in BP oil spill settlement money is no longer available.

[MORE: Republican senators' agenda for the session.]

[MORE: Democratic senators' agenda for the session.]

Finance Director Clinton Carter says the 2008 recession was the longest in U.S. history, though not the worst. He said Alabama has been recovering but has lagged behind the rest of the country.

Carter went over Gov. Bentley's budget proposal, which includes a $1.924 billion total budget and a four percent COLA, or cost of living adjustment, raise for state employees. He explained that most state agencies will be level funded in the budget, to go along with the cost of living adjustment.

Spending in agencies other than Corrections and Medicaid are down, but not enough to offset the growth of those two agencies.

The General Fund budget request for the year is at $2.2 billion while the state expected $1.9 billion in revenue. Despite all the issues presented, this is projected to be the largest General Fund in state history.

As for the Education Budget, Carter says Gov. Bentley's plan calls for a total of $6.417 billion with $4.421 billion going to K-12 and $1.623 billion to higher education. He believes the budget will fully fund PEEHIP and gives $20 million to Pre-k.

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