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Lawmakers Must Focus on Growing Meth Problem

The Associated Press recently highlighted an unmistakable new trend in drug enforcement: a dramatic decline in domestic methamphetamine laboratories fueled in part by an influx of Mexican-made meth across the country. 

According to the article, because Mexican-made meth is purer, cheaper and sadly easier to get these days, fewer criminals are making homegrown meth, which can lead to home fires and even explosions. In other words, this story comes with equal parts good news and bad news. 

But before we get too upset about these developments, it's critical to point out that our law enforcement community has taken a number of significant steps to crack down on meth criminals. For instance, our police force use real-time tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases, while our pharmacists use a system--called a meth offender block list--that prohibits meth offenders from buying those cold and allergy products.  Surely these efforts, which have demonstrated clear results in recent years, are also helping lead to a reduction in homegrown meth labs. 

Going forward, as lawmakers consider ways to step up the battle against meth, they should focus on the real sources of the problem: Mexican meth and addiction.  

Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican, represents District 14 in the Alabama Senate.

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Legislators Could See Prison Bill by January

Expanded use of house arrest? Driver's licenses for ex-cons? More resources for overworked parole officers?

All are among the reform measures that an Alabama prison task force is considering for a bill that could be drafted by next month. State Sen. Cam Ward, an Alabaster Republican who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said the committee likely will produce a single piece of legislation rather than a package of bills.

He said whatever the Legislature adopts next year almost certainly will not be the last word on corrections.

"The solution to this probably is going to be five or six things. It's not going to be one thing," said Ward, who added that he hopes to have a draft bill around the time of Gov. Robert Bentley's second inauguration. "I think we're looking at three or four years of continuous reform."

The reform panel has been working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to study how Alabama's prison population grew to nearly twice its designed capacity. The contents of the forthcoming bill are still to be determined, Ward said, but he added that it probably will address the state's underfunded parole system and look for inexpensive ways to reduce the number of ex-cons who return to prison.

Bentley largely has left the task force to develop its own solutions, although he did say earlier this year that the state would have to build another prison. The governor's spokeswoman, Jennifer Ardis, said she could not address the prison-construction issue specifically. She said Bentley is eager to review the recommendations of the state's prison task and the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

"Obviously, prison overcrowding is a significant issue," she said. "But in order to have a meaningful impact, you've got to reform the whole system."

Ward acknowledged any effort to reduce the average caseload for parole and probation officers would be expensive. One of the Justice Center's recommendations is to hire more parole officers.

Ward said the task force would look to the budget committee chairmen in the House and Senate for suggestions on how to pay for those reforms. But he also conceded that finding extra money will be difficult in a year where legislators are going to have to find an additional $250 million or more in new revenue or reduced spending just to balance the budget.

"I don't think we have an answer on it yet," he said.

State Sen. Vivian David Figures, a Mobile Democrat who serves on the task force, said dealing with the consequences of incarceration or waiting for federal intervention will be costlier.

"If we don't do something, the federal government is going to come in and do something," she said. "The bottom line is, they're going to have to come up with money on the front end or the back end."

Ward said some reforms would cost very little. He said the legislation could seek ways to make it easier to get driver's licenses after leaving prison. Lacking a driver's license - a necessity for getting a job, among other things - poses an obstacle to former prisoners in succeeding in the outside world.

"That's something simple. It doesn't cost a whole lot," Ward said.

Also under consideration, Ward said, is purchasing more GPS devices to monitor people on home detention. Having that extra security measure could allow the state to divert more borderline defendants from prison, which is far more expensive.

Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said he hopes the Legislature provides more resources for community-based substance abuse treatment and other programs that people need to succeed on parole or probation.

"We have to do a better job once the prisoner is released, regardless of whether it's six months or three years," he said.

Figures, one of two black people on the 25-member prison panel, said house arrest is an option for some but not all people who get into trouble with the law. She suggested that is a fact that is lost on many of the panelists.

"You have to consider how many of them have a home to go to," she said. "This is one of the reasons I pushed for more diversity on this task force."

Figures said she hopes the bill that goes to the Legislature includes prevention measures and help for ex-cons getting jobs.

'I am open to looking at all possibilities. I do think it is going to have to be a combination of things," she said. "It is going to take some time to pull these measures into place."

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Ward Selected as Chairman for NCSL Committee on Natural Resources and Infrastructure

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has been named chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ standing committee on Natural Resources and Infrastructure.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is an organization composed of legislatures from all 50 states and various U.S. territories. Its responsibility is to lobby the federal government on issues affecting the states and to encourage the interaction between members of state legislatures on problems common to their individual states. NCSL is the leading voice of state concerns regarding federal policies that impact the states.

NCSL does its work through its nine standing committees, including the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee. It acts as a forum for state legislators and legislative staff to learn and share information regarding programs and initiatives, in other states in particular. This committee has jurisdiction over state and federal energy, environment, agriculture and transportation programs, legislation, regulations and policies. With ever growing conflict between states and the federal government regarding upcoming proposed EPA regulations, this committee has taken on a greater role in policy debates.

Ward has served as chairman of both the Senate Energy Committee and Joint Oversight Committee for Energy Policy for the last four years in Alabama.

“I am humbled by this appointment and look forward to continuing the very important work that this committee is charged with performing”, Ward wrote in a release. “Alabama is rapidly becoming one of the leading energy producing states in our country. Alabama and other states are facing big challenges related to different areas of energy, agriculture the environment and transportation. I will do all I can in my capacity as chairman to provide some important and needed direction.”

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Much to be Thankful For

By Cam Ward / Guest Columnist With the election season over and Thanksgiving approaching, now would be a good time for all of us to pause and remind ourselves of everything we have to be thankful for.  Sometimes partisan elections can cause us all to become cynical of the world we live in. That is the nature of the democratic process; however, we should always remember that regardless of election outcomes, we all still have so many blessings to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of America’s most preeminent holidays tracing back to 1621 when the first dinner of thanks was celebrated by pilgrims and Native Americans. After nearly being wiped out by drought and poor crop harvest, the pilgrims prayed to God for help. Their prayers were answered in the form of rain and a good crop harvest with the help of Native Americans in the area. As a celebration of this good fortune, 90 people including the local Native Americans held a feast to thank God for their blessings. It was certainly a challenging time but they realized how much they had to be thankful for. While many of us are not faced with such dramatic circumstances as the pilgrims, there are still many things to be thankful for. First and foremost, we should be thankful that we live in a country where we can engage in such a spirited political discussion.  I suspect the people of North Korea and Cuba would love to just taste one day of such freedom. The freedom of speech, to practice whatever religion you choose, and to live as you see fit is something I believe we can all be thankful for. Yes, we have our differences, but they are only a shadow of the brutal repression that occurs in so many other countries. While our civil liberties should be cherished, let us also remember that Thanksgiving is a time to re-engage with our family and friends. Too often, during the hustle of our daily lives we take our loved ones for granted. Taking this time to remind ourselves that family and God are two of the most important factors of our lives should be a priority for everyone. Happy Thanksgiving and may your family have a wonderful holiday. - See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/11/25/much-to-be-thankful-for/#sthash.mRmZnMjm.dpuf

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Alabama Has Long, Hard Road to Reform Judicial System

It’s no secret that Alabama’s broken criminal justice system is in the early stages of reform.

But if that reform doesn’t happen to the extent it needs to, officials say the result could be financially crippling for Alabama. The change, however, isn’t going to be easy.

For the past several months, the Prison Reform Task Force, led by state Sen. Cam Ward, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center have been working together to study the system, come up with policy recommendations and effectively pinpoint funding needs for improvement.

Underfunded courts, overcrowded prisons and limited rehabilitation services for offenders are all major contributors to the failing system. And up until recent sentencing reform for drug and property criminals, that was part of the problem too.

One of the task force’s main goals — which was also the catalyst that drove the movement toward much-needed reforms — is reducing the capacity of Alabama’s overcrowded prisons, which are at about 190 percent of what they were designed for.

But reversing a criminal justice culture rooted in harsh punishments is not going to be easy for a conservative state that faces more challenges than most other states in the country.

“It’s going to be a huge uphill challenge,” Ward said. “It’s going to be very hard to push through because you have to change a lot of mindsets about how you deal with criminal justice. The goal is simple — you want less crime being committed. You want to make sure public safety comes first.”

Ward said incarceration by itself isn’t the only solution, and that concept is difficult to make people understand. He said investing in programs to help offenders get the services they need will, over time, improve public safety and lower recidivism.

“Long term, we want to reduce crime,” Ward said. “The way you do that is to make sure there’s less incentive and make sure the punishment fits the crime.”

Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who isn’t on the task force but has been to all the task force meetings, said he’s been a defense lawyer, a prosecutor and a circuit judge since he started his career in 1976.

“I consider the present criminal justice system to be unfair in its application,” Moore said. “We have people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim. The habitual felony law has been misused to add extremely long sentences that are unjustified.”

Moore said he has no doubt that the criminal justice system needs reform. He said he believes a major part of the prison overcrowding problem is unfair sentences that have been handed down over the years.

“One of the principal ingredients in justice is fairness,” he said. “Fairness to the victims, the defendants and society. We need to look at all aspects of it.”

Although states such as North Carolina and Texas have implemented reforms that have started to improve their criminal justice systems, none of those states had as many challenges as Alabama does, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

“We’re in the worst situation of any state I’ve seen out there,” Ward said.

Wright said prisons in those states were better staffed, better funded and didn’t have an overcrowding crisis. Alabama’s parole and probation officers also have the highest number of caseloads in the country, he said. Each officer has about 220 cases to manage.

“We are in such a system crisis,” Wright said. “It isn’t about just (corrections), pardons and paroles or the court system. The entire system is underfunded and understaffed. It’s going to take a large, comprehensive, holistic package of reforms to move the system to a more manageable level.”

And that is going to require money, Wright said.

Although state leaders are hoping significant changes can be made without money, Ward said that’s not the case. With a dwindling General Fund, the state is already facing a budget crisis in 2015.

At some point, money will have to be spent on new construction to replace some of the old prisons and improving drug and mental health programming for offenders, Ward said. Right now, resources in the state are scarce, especially in rural communities, he said.

“Before you start throwing money at a problem, there’s got to be some structural reforms put into place to make sure you’re spending money the best way possible,” Ward said.

Andy Barbee, the lead researcher for the CSG, said even if Alabama reduces its prison population by 3,000 or 4,000 inmates, the system would still be at about 175 percent capacity. If significant changes aren’t made, the state will likely face expensive lawsuits that could lead to federal intervention, he said.

Wright said the goal is to change lives, change behavior and change the system. In order to do that, there will need to be a continued stream of adequate funding for courts, prisons, community supervision and rehabilitative programming.

The state has exhausted its “free” reform options, Wright said. The change to presumptive sentencing guidelines for drug and property crimes was a huge step, but it won’t be enough to significantly reduce the prison population.

Managing the prison population also won’t change behavior or reduce recidivism, he said.

Wright said the majority of people who come to prison have a great deal of unmet needs — substance abuse, mental health problems and educational gaps. When you take those people and put them into the community, their needs are still not being met, and it’s much more expensive to provide those services behind bars.

“It’s not a matter of not having (services),” he said. “It’s a matter of which is more effective and which is cheaper.”

Ward said part of the problem is that community supervision has to work. The concept is meant to make sure offenders stay clean and on the right path.

Meridith Barnes, at assistant attorney general and legal counsel for the sentencing commission, said the mindset that you’re protecting the public because you’re locking all the criminals up needs to change.

The right way to approach community supervision is to try to help individuals make life changes.

“It’s a resources issue,” she said. “The state is going to have to find a way to make it a reality. Once we’re there, everyone will see the benefits.”

Barnes said once there are more resources and infrastructure to help people, the pardons and parole board is naturally going to parole more people so they can benefit from those programs. Right now, a lot of people need to get programming while they’re in prison because resources outside are so limited.

“At some point, we’re going to have to decide what really matters and where we’re going to put funding instead of recycling the problem over and over,” Barnes said. “If our policy makers view it as a serious issue, they’re going to have to find money to do it.”

Barbee said before the 2015 legislative session, the CSG research team is going to put together a package of recommended bills and policy changes for the task force. He said it’s not going to be easy to get everyone to agree.

“We can’t expect every single person on this task force will be jumping for joy with the proposals at the end of the day,” Barnes said.

Barnes said because the task force has leaders from different agencies and interests, people automatically look at the problems from their agency’s perspective.

“It’s important for task force members to get past it to do what’s best for the state, even if it means that agency has to change something,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re going to get everyone to buy in and I don’t think everyone’s going to agree at the State House either.”

In the past, legislators have tended to shy away from criminal justice reform after finding out how politically unpopular those efforts are, Wright said.

“It’s really easy to talk in general terms about support for criminal justice reform and sentencing reform,” Wright said. “But once people see the details and what’s involved, their support tends to wane.”

Ward said the process of reform — and reducing the prison population — will take years.

“It’s not going to take one year,” he said. “It look us a long time to get in the mess we’re in.”

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Alabaster Named Most Conservative City in U.S.

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

A national website has named Alabaster as the “Best city for conservatives” in the nation, citing the city’s “commitment to being fiscally conservative” and its residents’ willingness to support conservative political candidates.

Livability.com released its list of the best city for conservatives in the nation on Oct. 21, and ranked Alabaster at the top of the list.

“The last time a Republican presidential candidate lost the vote in Alabaster was in 1968, when most of Alabama voters backed Governor George Wallace, who ran as a Democrat,” read Alabaster’s entry on the list. “Alabaster is the home of Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican who some political observers predict will run for governor.”

Ward said he was “flattered” to be mentioned in the list, but was quick to shine the spotlight on Alabaster’s municipal leadership.

“I think this speaks volumes about the style of government we have here in Alabaster,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said during an Oct. 21 interview. “I’m glad to be mentioned on the list, but I think it says more about what the city has done on a local level.”

The city’s entry on the list praised the Alabaster City Council’s fiscal conservatism, and the city’s recently passed 2015 fiscal year budget.

“It most recently passed a spending budget that would increase the city’s fund balance by $400,000 based on revenue projects,” read the list.

The list also noted longtime U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus, R-Alabama, and his connection to Alabaster.

“Spencer Bachus, a rank-and-file Republican according to GovTrack, represents Alabama’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Alabaster,” read the city’s entry. “Bachus was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. The American Conservative Union gave Bachus a lifetime rating of 92, indicating a consistent conservative voting record.”

According to the Livability list, residents in Alabaster are likely to “drive a Cadillac, eat at Chic-fil-A, shop at Sam’s Club, watch ‘The Bachelorette’ and read ‘Good Housekeeping.’”

To view Alabaster’s entry on the list, visit Livability.com/best-places/top-10/best-cities-for-conservatives/best-cities-for-conservatives/2014/alabaster.

- See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/10/21/alabaster-named-best-city-for-conservatives/#sthash.eq40Mkgr.dpuf

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Alabama Launches Landmark Victims' Notification System

MONTGOMERY, AL.- Alabama crime victims will now have better access to information about the offenders who harmed them or their loved ones, as an innovative electronic notification system was unveiled today at the State Capitol. Members of the Task Force have been developing “AlabamaCAN” (the Alabama Crime Victim Automated Notification system) demonstrated the public website at hhtp://victims.alabama.gov, which is just on element of the project that maximizes today’s technology. With 1 out of ever 4 citizens being a victim of crime in their lifetime, AlabamaCAN will be a valuable tool.

 

In 2011, the Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward that outlined the requirements of the new notification system, and it established an Implementation Task Force that eventually included 8 state agencies and 2 crime victim advocates. Considered by many stakeholders to be the most significant crime victims’ legislation to pass in 20 years, the 2011 law primarily addresses how notice will be provided for upcoming parole/pardon hearings. But AlabamaCAN may one day extend further to provide notice at additional points in the criminal justice system. 

 

Since 1984, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has been required to locate victims of certain violent crimes (and/or immediate family members), and send notices of upcoming hearings via certified USPS mail, return-receipt requested. As a result, victims have frequently appeared at hearings and voiced their concerns about an offender’s possible release or communicated their thoughts to the Board in writing.

 

But the 1984 law had its limitations. For instance, the first effort to locate a victim often occurred 5,10 or 15 years after a violent crime, when many names/addresses have changed. Therefore, numerous crime victims were not receiving notice, despite the Parole Board’s due diligence to locate the. And the 1984 law only required notice for the victim who was harmed (or the next of kin in homicide), while violent crime often has a vast ripple-effect that touches many family members and friends. Each year, more then 6,000 parole hearings are held in Alabama.

 

The 2011 law creates a more efficient system which is available to additional victims and members of the public. Plus, probation officers will assist in capturing victim’s contact information much earlier in certain cases, and will enter data in AlabamaCAN when defendants are sentences. And, using the public website, victims are encouraged to keep their information up-to-date and choose how they want to be notified about hearing, as notice can now be delivered via email, text message or automated phone calls (but victims named in an indictment or next of kin in homicide still receive notice via USPS mail). Addresses can also be updated using driver’s license info, if the victim selects that feature. Or a victim may decide to “opt out” and not be notified of any future hearings.

With the assistance of a federal grant, the following state agencies have served on the Task Force developing the AlabamaCAN system: the Board of Pardons and Paroles, District Attorneys’ Association, Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department of Corrections, Attorney General’s Office, Alabama Crime Victims Compensation, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Additionally, the Task Force included crime victim advocates Darlene Hutchinson Biehl and Wanda Jones Miller, who were appointed by Attorney General Luther Strange.

 

Victims or others interested in more information on this revolutionary, user-friendly system can contact the Board of Pardons and Paroles at 334-353-7771 or visit http://victims.alabama.gov.

 

WHAT PUBLIC OFFICIALS & STAKEHOLDERS ARE SAYING:

 

Attorney General Luther Strange: AlabamaCAN will move victim notification forward by empowering victims with the knowledge and opportunity to access inmate information 24/7 and to ensure that their voices may be heard at any parole hearing for the inmate who harmed them or their loved ones, This is one more way that Alabama is honoring the rights of all victims. I want to thank the members of the Task Force for their service in this important project.”

 

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore: “I’m pleased the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts could play a role in the creation of this innovation program, which capitalizes on advancements in technology to more efficiently protect victim’s right to know and to remain involved in the parole hearing process.”

 

Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “Protecting the rights of victims should always be the top priority of lawmakers, I am proud to have worked with victims’ advocates to pass this bill which will ensure that the victims of violence receive proper notification on the status of criminals who commit these terrible crimes.”

 

Rep. Paul DeMarco, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee:  “Lawmakers must always put victims first. We must continue to work to advocate the protection and needs of victims and their families in Alabama. I have been proud to support this innovative notification system in the Legislature and look forward to how it will benefit our great state and its citizens for years to come. “

 

Robert Longshore, member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles: “Today serves as an example of what can happen when criminal justice stakeholders collaborate on an idea and keep working persistently to achieve a goal each believes will move Alabama forward. With the launch of AlabamaCAN, we have made Alabama an example to other states in the area of victim notification.”

 

Barry Matson, deputy director of the Alabama District Attorneys’ Association: “This landmark project is solid proof that groups and agencies with diverse missions can come together for the common good of the State of Alabama and victims of crime to create and implement a cutting-edge and cost-effective program that will benefit Alabama for generations. This is good for victims and last enforcement and all of Alabama, It just makes sense.”

 

Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas: “As last enforcement professionals, public safety is our top priority, and that includes recognizing victims’ rights and keeping victims informed. As Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, I am pleased to support the groundbreaking resource for victims.”

 

Darlene Hutchinson Biehl, crime advocate appointed to the Task Force: “When a victim’s life has been shattered by violent crime, they experience so many emotions. The trauma, anguish and confusion can be so overwhelming, and they are often desperate for public officials to come along side of them and stand in the gap for them. The AlabamaCAN system is the perfect example of that occurring. Not only have public officials been valuable partners in developing this system, but we’ve built in many safety nets in hopes that victims’ participation in the criminal justice system to hold offenders accountable for their actions. It is truly a great day for Alabama.”

 

Wanda Jones Miller, Crime advocate appointed to the Task Force: “This important law enables victims of crime to feel secure having the information regarding their offender a mouse click away. At the times when information is important, whether it be at midnight or a holiday, a victim can obtain the knowledge they need to make them feel safe and secure. For victims of crime, this is priceless legislation.”

 

Miriam Shehane, founder of VOCAL and commissioner for the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission: “In 1984, crime victims worked tirelessly to get legislation passed to inform them of when their offenders are being considered for parole. Now, 30 years later, changes are being made on how these notifications are sent. Victim advocates have worked closely with Parole Board to ensure victims will have the right to select the mode of notification that is best for them. This is exciting news. The Parole Board is to be commended fort asking all precautions that the rights for crime victims have not been jeopardized.”

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Economic Development Evolves But Grows in Shelby County

The term “Economic Development” is something that is in the eye of the beholder depending on where you live.  In some communities this means a growth of manufacturing jobs, while in others it is a sign of growing retail choices for consumers.  In reality it is dictated by the needs of the community.

Over the last 15 years I have had the opportunity to work with the City of Alabaster on economic development projects ranging from retail development to industrial distribution centers.  While the business of economic development has evolved it has also grown tremendously in our entire regional community. With the lowest unemployment rate in the state, Shelby County has seen its economy evolve in such a way that allows to it be creative in our recruitment strategies. A good economy is one that does not rely solely on one sector or another but instead strikes a balance. 

As we have worked hard to develop retail development such as the shopping centers on interstate 65, there has also been a strong emphasis on recruiting office space development and industrial distribution centers.  While retail developments like Dunkin Donuts, hotels, and chain restaurants provide instant gratification for consumers, long-term economic growth must also include a support for existing business and an emphasis on jobs oriented industries. 

By using data driven models and modern technology, Alabaster has developed online tools to promote existing businesses as well as offer a window to the outside world about the economic benefits of doing business in our community. Whether it is an interactive web site designed to provide developers with the most up to date information about our community, a QR code system on employee business cards or an active social media advertising campaign, the world of economic development has changed for the good.

In the end, a good economic development strategy still depends on the quality of the local officials involved in this effort. It is teamwork that requires a conscience effort of cooperation among man levels of government. In the next several months as new retail and commercial businesses announce they are opening in our community we should always remember that the ability to development new strategies while maintaining good local leadership is the key to continuing strong economic development in our local community.

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Governor Bentley Says State Faces Budget Crisis

Charles J. Dean | cdean@al.com By Charles J. Dean
MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Every time Gov. Robert Bentley talks about a looming budget crisis facing the state in 2015 he says all options will be on the table to fix it when the Legislature meets in March.

Except the governor, who is also a candidate for reelection, does not really mean "all options" are on the table. The option not on the table for the Republican governor or the Republican-dominated Legislature is tax increases.
That is hardly a surprising position for Republicans in a deep red state. But what always provokes a bit of head scratching is Bentley's view that a deficit some estimates put at $200 million in the state's General Fund budget will not be fixed without "new" revenue. "...Governor you said you have cut and cut and you've streamlined. Don't you need additional money, new money from some source?" I asked Bentley last week. His answer was yes. "We are going to need additional revenue, yes. But I don't know where that is yet. But I do not support tax increases."
Bentley's stock answer on the campaign trail to where new money might come from is to say that a group of key state leaders are studying that very question and he expects them to make recommendations to him in the next few months.

"I really have not been given any recommendations yet. I'm waiting," said Bentley last week after speaking to a meeting of retired state workers worried that budget problems will result in higher health insurance costs and threatened pensions. "I'm sure there will be many, many recommendations that we will look at but I haven't been given those yet. I hope to be given those over the next couple of months," added the governor. That means don't expect to hear anything specific about budget fixes until after the Nov. 4 election.

There have been hints about some of the possible options that could come Bentley's way. Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the leader of the senate and one of those looking at ways to fix the budget, has talked about efforts to remove so-called "earmarks" on some state dollars. Earmarks designate by law some streams of tax revenue for specific purposes, most especially for public schools and colleges. Another possible option Marsh has mentioned includes combining the state's two budgets, one that goes to pay for education needs and the general fund budget which pays for everything else.

It is that budget that is in crisis.

Another option might include elimination of some tax deductions and exemptions. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said none of those possible solutions will be easy to muster enough votes in the Legislature despite the fact the GOP holds solid majorities in both houses of the body.


"When you are talking about eliminating earmarks, especially those that go to support education and eliminating some tax deductions and exemptions, you are talking about doing things that will likely results in a firestorm," said Ward. "Agricultural interests, forestry interests, public schools, universities, businesses both big and small all have earmarks, deductions and exemptions. You can expect a heck of a fight."

Ward said he appreciates that the work of trying to figure out solutions to the general fund woes is hard and take time. Still Ward said he wished that the recommendations could be made before the election or at least there were more discussion of what the possible solutions are.

"We are facing serious problems, especially funding prisons and Medicaid which eat up sixty-five percent of the general fund," said Ward. "I think we need to discuss this with voters and I appreciate it that the governor is at least pointing out we have a serious problem. But I think we need to go beyond that and talk about what the solutions might be because none of them will be easy."

© 2014 AL.com. All rights reserved.
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State Must Tackle Drug Epidemic to Solve Prison Crisis

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

Alabama must combat a growing “drug epidemic” if it is to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons, an Alabaster state senator said after attending a recent national criminal justice policy summit.

Ward
Ward

The Council of State Governments Justice Center gathered state and local leaders from across the nation―including respected legislators, court and law enforcement officials and cabinet secretaries―to discuss complex criminal justice policies at its annual Board of Directors meeting during the week of Sept. 17 in Memphis, Tenn.

Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, participated in discussions among the bipartisan group of board members who gathered to determine the best ways to take on issues such as lowering recidivism rates among people who were formerly incarcerated, improving law enforcement’s response to people with mental disorders and reducing schools’ dependence on suspension and expulsion in response to student misconduct.

After returning from the meeting, Ward said he obtained several ideas to help combat overcrowding in Alabama prisons, which are at nearly double their capacity.

“There were a couple of good ideas that I think can work here,” Ward said during a Sept. 23 interview. “We’ve got to strengthen our work release programs, we’ve got to tackle the drug epidemic and we’ve got to strengthen our alternative sentencing programs like our drug and mental health courts.”

In addition to reviewing the status of these respective projects, board members provided input to help shape the Justice Center’s future priorities. In planning for the upcoming year, the group examined options for helping state and local leaders undertake issues related to employment challenges for people with criminal records; reducing the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders in jails; and improving data collection in states’ juvenile justice systems.

Ward said speaking with the bipartisan group of legislators from across the nation allowed everyone in attendance to share ideas and best practices when dealing with prison-related issues.

“We shared some very useful information and best practices,” Ward said. “It’s a good way of not reinventing the wheel. You can see what has worked, and what hasn’t worked, in other parts of the country.”

- See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/09/24/ward-state-must-tackle-drug-epidemic/#sthash.Pp6wFngm.dpuf

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