Alabama Senate votes to merge law enforcement, IT

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Republican-led efforts to consolidate state government operations found bipartisan support in the Senate on Tuesday, with Democrats and Republicans voting to merge law enforcement and information technology operations.

The structure of state government traditionally stays the same from one administration to the next, but government consolidation is a priority of the Senate's Republican leadership this session. Next up is merging legislative services.

The Senate voted 31-0 for a bill backed by the governor that would merge 14 police-type groups into a new Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency. The Senate tallied the same vote on a bill that would consolidate information technology operations of all state agencies under an appointed board, which could shift the work from state employees to private companies. A companion bill setting up a secretary of information technology in the governor's Cabinet cleared 32-0. All three bills now go to the House for consideration.

"What just happened is huge," said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Marsh, who sponsored the law enforcement legislation, said it would save $30 million annually by coordinating communications, accounting and other support services.

"This legislation represents a more targeted and coordinated approach that will better serve the people of Alabama," he said.

His bill protects the jobs of current law enforcement officers in the mergers.

The legislation calls for the governor to appoint the director of the new agency, and that person would decide who heads its two major departments. Democratic Sen. Bobby Singleton of Greensboro said the success of the new agency will depend on the governor's appointment.

"As always, we have to give a certain amount of faith to our elected officials," Marsh said.

Legislators expect Gov. Robert Bentley's homeland security director and chief law enforcement adviser, former state Rep. Spencer Collier, to move into the new position.

The sponsor of the two IT bills, Sen. Phil Williams of Gadsden, said many state agencies operate their own computer operations like silos, and they don't use money-saving features like bulk purchasing and licensing of computer programs.

His main bill would set up an appointed board called the Alabama Technology Authority to serve the information technology needs of the state's non-education education agencies. It would assume the computer work now done by the Data Systems Management Division of the state Finance Department and have the power to bring more coordination to the state's varied operations.

Williams said it would work much like the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, which serves educational programs from kindergarten to college.

He said the Finance Department operates with 174 IT employees, while the Alabama Supercomputer Authority has 15 because it contracts most of its work to private companies through a competitive process.

"The point is competition breeds savings and that is what we need," he said. But he said his bill provides for reducing state employees through attrition rather than layoffs.

A study done by Auburn University Montgomery estimated state agencies spend $317 million annually on IT operations, and it forecast annual savings at $32 million to $64 million, based on experiences in similar states.

The governor supported the bill creating the Cabinet secretary, but he wanted legislators to hold up on the other bill until the secretary was in place.

Bentley's spokesman, Jeremy King, said the governor's primary concern is protecting secure information about Alabama citizens. "Any time you look at merging so many systems and putting so much information under one roof, security has to be a top priority. We must make sure we have an IT secretary in place who is qualified to protect the citizens and the state itself," he said.

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