Proponents say the bills would save the state money by eventually eliminating management positions on state staff, but they insisted the changes wouldn’t immediately cost anyone a job.
“Everybody’s been protected in this proposal,” said President Pro Tem Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, a sponsor of one of the bills.
Marsh’s bill, which passed the Senate unanimously, would take most of the state’s 22 law enforcement agencies and organize them under a single Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency, overseen by a cabinet-level secretary. Like the other bills approved Tuesday, it has yet to reach a vote in the House.
There’s already a state-level Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Alabama State Troopers, the Capitol Police and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, among other law enforcement arms.
But outside that department lies a number of other agencies with armed officers who have the power to make arrests. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Conservation, among other agencies, all have their own law enforcement arms.
Marsh’s bill would combine many of those agencies under the same umbrella as the Public Safety agencies. Marsh said the change would save the state $260 million over a 10-year period, mostly from attrition at middle levels of management.
“Human resources will be done for all, and accounting will be done for all” in a unified agency, Marsh said.
A concern for personnel
Skeptics of the move questioned whether the consolidation would leave long-serving law enforcement employees out of work. Alabama has shrunk its state payroll by nearly 4,000 workers in the past two years.
“This is a concern for those personnel,” said Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, who asked if the state would eliminate employees under the proposal.
Marsh said all current employees would be grandfathered in under the bill, with their current retirement benefits. Some employees wouldn’t be replaced after retirement, he said.
The Senate’s passage of the bill is a victory for Marsh, who has been talking about streamlining the agencies since shortly after his election as president pro tempore two years ago. The state has faced tight post-recession budgets since then, and Marsh has pushed streamlining as a way to cut state costs.
The bill that passed was a blend of Marsh’s original proposal and a similar proposal by Gov. Robert Bentley. It would place the agencies under two divisions and create a cabinet-level office to oversee both.
That new cabinet member would absorb the duties of the state’s homeland security director, currently a cabinet position, and would place Homeland Security under the new unified state law enforcement agency. The current Director of Public Safety position would run the public safety division of the new agency.
Some law enforcement agencies, such as the Emergency Management Agency and the Attorney General’s Office, would be unaffected. The Marine Police division of the Department of Conservation would become part of the new unified agency, but other officers would stay in Conservation, Marsh said, because of a court order mandating racial diversity in the department.
Senators also unanimously passed a bill that would create a cabinet-level Secretary of Technology to oversee the state’s computer systems. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Phil Williams, R-Gadsden, said most other states already have such a position. He said the state needs a central coordinator to deal with computer security, among other things.
“Our systems in this state have been hacked a number of times” in recent years, Williams said. He said hackers had accessed personnel information and information about the state’s infrastructure.
In a separate bill, senators voted to create an Alabama Technology Authority to oversee computer systems at non-education state agencies. The state’s educational system already operates a Supercomputer Authority that maintains a supercomputer center and a computer network for state schools.
Williams said the goal of the bill was to bring non-education computer resources under a system like the Supercomputer Authority, a change he said would save the state as much as $64 million per year.
Some of those savings would come from buying computer equipment in bulk. Some, he said, would come from privatizing some functions of the information technology system.
That had the bill’s critics worried about a potential loss of state jobs. Williams said changes in personnel would come through attrition over time.
“I don’t want to privatize this to the point that we’re laying people off and they can’t get jobs,” he said.
The bills would place both the Supercomputer Authority and proposed Alabama Technology Authority under the Secretary of Technology. The secretary would create a four-year plan for purchasing equipment and maintaining the state’s computer systems.
That rankled some senators, who said the bill would take away the power of universities to set their own computer purchasing policies. Because they’re run by boards of trustees, senators argued, the universities have some autonomy from other state agencies.
“This supercomputer guru can go into higher ed and tell them you’ve got to do it this way,” said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville.
Marsh said the technology secretary would be on the board that runs the Supercomputer Authority, but wouldn’t have the power to dictate policy to schools.
Dial proposed an amendment that would exempt universities from some of the law’s provisions. It passed 22-11.
Both computer-related bills passed the house unanimously.
Marsh warned that, while the law enforcement bill would create savings in the long run, costs could rise initially as the agencies are rearranged.
He also said savings would come only if the governor appointed a law enforcement secretary willing to and able to bring costs down.
All three bills now move on to the House of Representatives for a vote.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.