Gov. Kay Ivey is plowing ahead full speed with a plan to have private companies build new prisons that the state would then lease from them.
It’s the simplest plan with the least hassle. It’s also the plan with the least transparency and accountability because it bypasses the Alabama Legislature.
Ivey maintains that under state law, she can enter into lease contracts without legislative approval, and even setting aside the specific issue of prison construction, this is a matter the Legislature needs to address. When it comes to routine transactions — such as, for example, leasing office equipment — the state’s executive branch doesn’t need lawmakers second-guessing every decision. But building and leasing new prisons is a $1 billion proposition. That’s not something the governor’s office, regardless of its occupant, should be able to undertake unilaterally.
The advantage of Ivey’s plan to lease prisons is that by shutting out the Legislature, she avoids the squabbling over which existing prisons are closed and where to build the new ones. Legislators tend to like prisons in their districts because they regard them as jobs programs for their constituents.
The disadvantage is it allows a single person — the governor — to dictate policy and do so in secret.
Ivey’s office has refused to disclose details of the bids it has solicited, citing the usual concerns about the sensitivity of business negotiations and the like, in effect daring the news media to sue for what should be public information, knowing the outcome of such a suit will come too late to matter.
In theory, Alabama has one of the best open records laws in the nation. In practice, however, it is enforceable only by a long and expensive legal process. It has no internal enforcement mechanism. This is something else the Legislature needs to address.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said the successful developer team or teams will be announced this summer and the financial terms will be announced in the fall.
Additionally, some lawmakers are worried that, within all this secrecy, is a plan to turn the running of the state’s prisons over to private companies.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he plans to send Ivey’s office a letter this week asking if contracting out prison services is an option she’s considering or in bids recently submitted to the Department of Corrections.
“I’m just going to ask point blank,” Ward said. “I am going to be 100% opposed to privately run prisons. That’s a big policy shift that the Legislature should be involved in.”
Ivey’s office maintains the state will continue to run the prisons, but lawmakers and voters shouldn’t have to take such issues simply on faith.
Ultimately, however, the central issue is the governor seems bent on committing the state to a major undertaking without the Legislature approving a dime. That is not how our government works — or at least it shouldn’t be.
“I think we’re all very leery about spending $1 billion-plus on prisons and at the end of the day it still won’t be adequate enough room in the state, we’ll still be overcrowded,” said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. “If the governor wants this to happen, we’re going to have to be part of this process. Only the Legislature can appropriate money.”
But unless the Legislature acts, members may find they are appropriating money to pay bills the governor racked up on her own.