- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s massive prison construction proposal - the centerpiece of the embattled governor’s 2016 agenda - failed late Wednesday night in the final minutes of the legislative session.

Lawmakers concluded the session at midnight before Bentley could get a scaled-back bill $550 million bill, an attempt at a last-minute compromise, approved by the House of Representatives. House Speaker Mike Hubbard said supporters did not have enough votes to cut off an inevitable filibuster and did not try for a vote as the clock wound down.

Hubbard said the outcome was disappointing because the problems in the state prison system will continue. But he said many members were uncomfortable with the rapid changes to the bill on the session’s last day.

“I don’t want to pass something that looks like it was figured out on the back of an envelope in two hours. This is something we had worked on for months and were comfortable the numbers worked,” Hubbard said.

The governor, in a push to replace the state’s crowded and aging prisons, proposed an $800 million bond issue to build three new mega-prisons for men housing up to 4,000 inmates each and one new women’s prison. Most existing prisons would close under the plan.

After some lawmakers questioned the cost and scope, a conference committee on Wednesday proposed a smaller $550 million plan to build two new prisons for men and one for women. Senators voted 23-12 for the plan, before it faltered in the House.

The eleventh-hour failure, just hours after supporters were buoyed with optimism over the apparent compromise, was a political defeat for the governor. Bentley has struggled to shake off a scandal after admitting to making sexually charged remarks to a former top aide. Some House members made a long-shot call for Bentley’s impeachment in the wake of the scandal.

The governor’s press office did not have an immediate response to the bill’s demise.

Rep. Mike Jones, who handled the prison bill in the House of Representatives, said Alabama is in danger of being ordered by a federal judge to fix prison crowding and outdated facilities that do not comply with the American Disabilities Act.

“It’s not a matter of whether we are going to spend a lot of money on prisons. We are going to spend a lot on prisons. It’s whether it’s done by federal court decisions, or our own decisions,” said Jones, R-Andalusia.

Alabama prisons house nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold. State prisons in January housed more than 24,000 inmates in facilities originally designed for 13,318. The debate on the prison construction bill came after a March riot at William C. Holman Correctional Facility. Inmates lit fires, seized control of a dormitory and stabbed the prison warden.

Bentley had announced the massive project in his 2016 State of the State address in February and took reporters on tours of overcrowded state prisons.

Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, said he detested the idea of borrowing $800 million, but supported the bill because corrections officers face dangerous conditions when they go to work in state prisons

“We have guards who are in crisis every single day,” Williams said.

Democrats in the Alabama Senate tried to block the bill from coming to a vote, questioning who might make money from the construction and bond work, and criticizing the policy choice to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of prisons while not meeting the Alabama Medicaid Agency’s funding request.

“There are a lot of people who will dance all the way to the bank on this issue,” Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said.

“Why can’t we find the zest and zeal to find funding for Medicaid like you have the zest and zeal for this?” Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said.

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