Going to Prison
Attorney General Strange and State Sen. Cam Ward have made headlines recently with bold claims about Alabama’s prison system. Another General Fund debate hinges on whether Alabama’s legislature can defuse the “box of dynamite in our prison system.” Alabama has the nation’s third highest incarceration rate (650 people for every 100,000 residents) the majority of which are non-violent offenders. It doesn’t take a statistician to realize that more than 31,000 inmates in a prison system designed to hold 14,000 is a recipe for conflict. What remains to be seen is whether Alabama doubles down on the costs of the system — adding more and more corrections officers and, thus, ballooning the costs of incarceration to the Alabama taxpayer — or begins to take a deeper look at Alabama’s sentencing guidelines and nonviolent offender laws. Either way, something will need to change in 2014.
Speaker Hubbard Indictment(s)
Rumors have been circulating without end for more than six months now regarding the outcome of special grand jury investigation in Lee County led by special prosecutor Matt Hart. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard is widely expected to be at the center of the grand jury’s investigation, and whispers continue to flood out of Montgomery that “the indictments could come any day now.” It’s important to note, as one insider said, “Montgomery works itself into a frenzy over these rumors, and there’s a 50% chance Hubbard may walk away from this without the slightest legal implication.” We’re going to go ahead, however, and side with the 50% chance that he does receive at least one indictment. Sources say prosecutor Matt Hart will have no quarrels issuing it during the legislative session, so let the waiting games continue.
The state legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act to great fanfare in 2013. An imperfect education bill, it should be bombarded with edits from every direction — from AEA-backed Republicans and the pro-reform business community, especially. Statewide, only 719 students took advantage of the opportunity to leave “failing” schools last year, with only 52 transferring to private schools. While it seems that the uproar about the potential for government subsidization of private schools may have been a bit of a red herring, it appears that the majority of Alabama families need to be better informed about the options available to them. Right now the number of applicants for transfer makes even Obamacare registration numbers look like a homerun. So expect a few more tweaks to improve the functionality of the program (in addition to the customary, ill-fated calls for its repeal).
The Republican House Caucus has laid out their 2014 Commonsense Agenda, which consists of nine bills ranging from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to the Healthcare Rights of Conscious Act. Rumors have it that Speaker Mike Hubbard has informed his committee chairs that they are to hold immediate votes on all of these bills in their first committee meetings, and that he wants all of them approved by the House and sent to the Senate by the end of next week. You can bet that lobbyists and special interest groups are already setting up for battles over several of these bills when they do hit the Senate, since the Speaker will make no time for it in his House chamber. Aside from the Commonsense Agenda, rumors have it that the legislature will pack this session in and we will have sine die in early April (or sooner).
Budget Battle Part I
On Monday, Gov. Bentley proposed a pay raise for Alabama teachers — their first since 2007. The AEA has announced its intentions to pursue a 6% raise for education employees. You can expect an expensive and very public battle over the expected 3-4% difference between the two proposals. Couple this with the potential for a battle over Common Core, and we’re looking at an incredibly volatile year for education policy.
Budget Battle Part II
It’s admittedly not a bold prediction to assert the General Fund budget debate will hinge on the escalating costs of Medicaid. While even the boldest of conservatives are unlikely to publicly support cutting benefits for poor children and single mothers, curbing the escalating costs of healthcare (and attempting to tie it to Obamacare) presents an attractive talking point during an election cycle. What remains to be seen is whether those talking points can transfer into policies that benefit Alabama’s working poor.
Governor Bentley Won’t Get Paid
He told us he wouldn’t take a salary until the state reaches full employment — 5.2% unemployment according to him. Alabama is sitting at 6.2% right now but that rate doesn’t account for the state’s drop in the labor force and the state’s job growth last year ranked 49th in the country. The only state we out-mustered was the one that pays people to live there (Alaska). It didn’t help that Gov. Bentley was embarrassed by Boeing when the company used Alabama and other states to threaten the state of Washington’s union over the past few months. Even if Boeing had chosen Alabama, the jobs would have been stolen, not created. Bentley’s lackluster economic development strategy has simply been bribing large corporations to move from one state to ours. The (foreign-based) auto industry in Alabama sure has helped the state, but we think this supposed Bentley fellow is more like a Saturn.
Cities Won’t Get What They Want
Alabama’s major cities have adopted their legislative agendas prior to this year’s legislative session. However, when major cities with elected state representatives have to hire lobbyists to lobby the state legislature, something is wrong with the system. Aaron Renn notes a study that shows that large cities often get rejected by state legislators. Why? The study surprisingly found that the more state representatives a city had, the higher the chance these representatives could disagree and not carry the full support needed for the city-supporting legislation. No wonder Alabama’s cities are hiring lobbyists they can trust. Maybe the state’s major cities can form a locally led coalition, though, which may be the product of the state’s five largest cities’ mayors meeting this past week.