Senate Gambling Discussion Evolves into Dispute Over Prison Funding

Credits: Capital Public Radio

The gambling legislation debated and approved in the Alabama Senate on Thursday sparked a heated speech and filibuster over the need for funding for a new prison in Escambia County, a promise lawmakers made in 2021.

The bill, which was approved in a Senate committee earlier this week, includes revenue from a lottery and other gambling operations, with the first three years’ revenue dedicated to ongoing capital improvement and infrastructure projects. After March 2029, revenues would be split between the General Fund, education, and roads and bridges.

US Senate Gambling Discussion (Credits: Brookings Institution)

Last month, Alabama Daily News reported that prison construction was a possibility for at least some of the gambling revenue, as the state currently lacks the money or a dedicated revenue stream for the 4,000-bed Escambia prison.

Senator Andrew Jones brought an amendment to start the three-way revenue split immediately, which was approved by the Senate. This led to a rare Republican filibuster by Senator Greg Albritton, who sponsored the gambling bills in the Senate and represents Escambia County.

Albritton argued that gambling revenue was the only way to meet the obligation of funding the new prison. Escambia County is home to Holman Prison, parts of which have been closed due to structural issues, and Fountain Prison, originally built in 1928.

Jones, in response, stated, “We answer to the people of Alabama. The people of Alabama want better roads and bridges, better schools.” Despite Albritton’s filibuster, the amendment was approved, and Albritton immediately requested debate on the bill stop.

US Senate Gambling Discussion (Credits: Vox)

He favored the gambling legislation but made compromises to make it palatable to Senate Republicans, discussing the prison funding with his colleagues. Lawmakers and Governor Kay Ivey dedicated $1.2 billion to two prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties in a 2021 law.

The Elmore site is under construction and was originally expected to cost less than $700 million, but now is estimated to cost over $1 billion due to inflation and design changes. Construction on the Escambia prison hasn’t started, and an updated cost estimate isn’t yet available.

Legislative leaders and Ivey remain committed to the prison project, with Ivey’s spokeswoman stating that she is dedicated to the construction of the new facilities and will continue working with the Legislature to accomplish this goal.

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