Lawmakers Press Agencies on Budgets, Prisons and Broadband

By Todd Stacy Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY — Alabama's General Fund remains healthy, the Education Trust Fund is uncertain, for now, and top lawmakers have questions about how the state's ambitious prison construction plans will impact future budgets.

Those were the top takeaways from Thursday's budget discussions at the State House. Members of the Senate Ways and Means General Fund Committee met in Montgomery for a special hearing to get a better understanding of the state's finance situation amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and receive an update on Alabama Department of Corrections' plan to build three new prisons in a contract-lease arrangement.

More information, including updated costs and where the prisons will be located, will be available to lawmakers after contract negotiations are done later this year, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked about the terms of these prison leases and questioned the wisdom of spending so much on buildings the state will ultimately not own.

Dunn said the current proposal calls for the state to lease the prisons from the private companies that build them for 30 years. Beyond that, "something would need to happen," to include the possibility of the state taking over ownership, he said.

Dunn also assured lawmakers the Department would be able to pay for the new prison leases with savings left over from closing current dilapidated prisons that require greater staff and maintenance expenses.

“It is not our intent to come to the Legislature and ask for a plus-up in our allocation (in the General Fund budget) to pay for these leases," he said

Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, said he was mostly satisfied with Dunn's explanation but predicted there would be more questions asked going forward on the prison construction plan.

"I've been over it with him before, and those numbers certainly have some validity. That doesn't mean that I accept them completely or that it will completely hold true," Albritton said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has championed prison and criminal justice reforms in the Legislature for years, warned against thinking that new prisons would completely solve Alabama's problems with inmate overcrowding and unsafe conditions. On the costs, Ward said he was more worried about inflation creating future problems.

"I don't worry about five years from now, I worry about 10 years from now," Ward said. "There's a lot of variables and the fundamental numbers are fine, it's just the long term you have to worry about."

Dunn said completion of the new prisons is two to three years away.

Finance Director Kelly Butler provided an update on the state's efforts to allocate the $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding from the federal government. While much of that money has been assigned to different "buckets" of funding streams, little has actually been spent so far.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, expressed frustration at the challenge the state faces to spend the federal relief money on time and within the rules, calling it "almost impossible."

Butler said while it's true most of the state's allocation hadn't been spent yet, $816 million had been committed to various entities and efforts, including:

• $668 million to reimburse the state agencies, local governments, the courts and the Department of Public Health for outbreak-related expenses;

• $100 million for the "Revive Alabama" grant fund to assist small businesses;

• $30 million for a college COVID-19 testing program through UAB; and

• $18 million for COVID-19 testing at nursing homes.

“You could use up the money in a hurry," Butler said.

Marsh continued to press the issue of using part of the state's federal CARES Act funds to expand access to high speed broadband internet in rural areas. In passing the CARES Act, Congress put tight restrictions on how the funds could be used, including not allowing any expenses other than those directly related to the outbreak and not allowing any spending past Dec. 30. Those provisions would seem to complicate an ambitious broadband plan, but Marsh said the state should at least press the federal government to find out for sure.

"If we know these dollars can be used to expand broadband... then I think we should be putting on a full effort to get broadband to every corner of this state, so that if in this coming school year our kids have to go home for any reason, then they can continue to learn. I think you might see a mix of in school and online learning, but they can't do it if they don't have access to high speed internet."

Marsh said he had spoken with members of Alabama's congressional delegation about potentially amending the CARES Act to be more flexible.

"I'm hopeful the federal government will give the state a longer period of time to use those dollars."

'Healthy' General Fund

Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency, told lawmakers the General Fund, which pays for non-education programs and services, is "healthy" with revenues not dropping off significantly during the COVID-19 outbreak. One key reason is growth from the Simplified Sellers Use Tax, which taxes online purchases.

"That's pretty phenomenal considering everything that's been going on."

Some state revenue streams are down in 2020, including court costs, lodging tax and oil and gas taxes. However, the more than $51 million growth from the online tax is more than enough to make up for those losses, Fulford said.

Gov. Kay Ivey originally proposed a 2021 General Fund budget of $2.56 billion, but after the virus outbreak hit, lawmakers pared it to $2.39 billion, still a record amount. Fulford told lawmakers solid revenues should allow the state to meet those obligations, and even have some left in reserve.

For the Education Trust Fund, by far the largest of the two budgets, the prospects are less than certain at the moment. State income tax makes up a large portion of that fund, and Ivey delayed mandatory tax payments until July 15. Soon after that date, the state should have a better idea of where education funding stands and more hearings could be called.

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