- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Thursday that the demise of his prison construction bill - that had been the centerpiece of his agenda this year - was a disappointment, but that he “will not give up on this.”

The governor, in a push to replace the state’s crowded and aging prisons, had sought to borrow up to $800 million to build four new mega-prisons and close most existing facilities. The bill died in the final hour of the legislative session when a scaled-back proposal did not get a House vote in the face of expected filibuster.

“We are disappointed, but we will not give up on this. It is a major, major problem in this state,” Bentley said. “We came very close yesterday to getting it passed, at least some form of it. Time just seemed to run out.”

The governor said he would not rule out a special session at some point on prisons and other issues, but added that it would not be anytime soon.

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.

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 he said many members were uncomfortable with the rapid changes to the bill on the session’s last day. He said House members had spent months vetting the numbers of the original proposal and the prison system’s assertion that the debt could be paid through consolidation savings.

“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 eleventh-hour failure came just hours after the governor’s office was buoyed with optimism over the apparent compromise. It was a political defeat for the governor, who has struggled to shake off a scandal after admitting to making sexually charged remarks to a former top aide.

Bentley had made the prison project his chief policy initiative of the session, announcing the massive project in his 2016 State of the State address and taking reporters on tours of overcrowded state prisons.

Rep. Mike Jones, who handled the prison bill in the House, said Alabama is in danger of being ordered by a federal judge to fix prison crowding and outdated facilities. Inmates have sued the state, saying it fails to provide basic medical care and that facilities are dangerous for disabled inmates and 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.

Bentley said he feared court rulings this summer will show that not passing the construction bill was “a mistake.”

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.

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