House Advances Oversight Bill in Response to Prison Leases

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers, reacting to the governor’s $3 billion plan to lease prisons, advanced a bill Tuesday that would give the legislative branch more oversight over large expenditures.

The House of Representatives voted 98-0 to approve the bill by Republican Rep. Mike Jones of Andalusia. The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate. HB 392 would create a new Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency to review state agency agreements and obligations spending $10 million or more or five percent of the agency’s annual appropriation.

The oversight committee could not stop a contract but could suspend payment until the adjournment of the next regular session. Jones said that would allow the Legislature an opportunity to do research and push for changes.

“It allows oversight,” Jones said. “It gives them the power to request information, documents, etc.”

The bill came in response to Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to lease three large prisons, an idea that has garnered mixed reviews from lawmakers. The three leases would cost an estimated $3 billion in payments over 30 years. Ivey has signed two of the three leases.

Jones said the committee could not look at contracts that were already signed, but the representative said it became clear that there was an oversight gap and lawmakers needed more “checks and balances.”

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the plan would create generational debt and that legislators had been kept in the dark.

“If only we had this 12 months ago,” said Democratic Rep. Chris England of Tuscaloosa.

“We should have a say when somebody — outside of the appropriators, somebody outside the people with the pocketbook — can say for the next 30 or so years we are going to pay at least $87 million dollars a year for something we won’t even own,” England said.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns that the committee was an overstep of legislative power, could be used for political purposes, or duplicate the work of an existing contract review committee that can delay contract payment for a shorter period.

Republican Rep. Chris Pringle of Mobile asked if it was a violation of the separation of powers,

“We can’t tell the executive branch not to sign something,” Jones responded.

The committee would consist of the chairmen, vice-chairmen, and the ranking minority members of the two general fund budget committees.

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