Six things to know about the Accountability Act changes that the Alabama Senate passed
A bill that would expand tax credits under the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) passed 20-14 in the state Senate on Tuesday night. SB 71, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, now goes to the House. Below are six major aspects of the AAA that would change under SB 71:
(1) More tax credits would be available. Businesses and individuals can get tax credits for donations to organizations that grant scholarships to help eligible students attend private schools under the AAA. Current law caps the total amount of such credits at $25 million a year, but SB 71 would raise the cap to $30 million. (Marsh originally sought to lift the cap to $35 million, but he accepted an amendment by Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, to reduce that amount.) The bill also would erase the current $7,500 annual limit on scholarship tax credits for individuals and let taxpayers claim credits against their 2014 taxes for donations made this year.
(2) Scholarship sizes would be limited. AAA scholarships could be no more than $6,000 a year for elementary school students, $8,000 a year for middle school students and $10,000 a year for high school students under SB 71. Arise’s Kimble Forrister suggested during Senate committee testimony on March 11 that lawmakers limit the size of AAA scholarships “to ensure that private schools keep tuition costs in line with other schools in the market, not boost tuition to get these dollars.”
(3) The income limit for scholarship eligibility would drop. SB 71 would reduce the income eligibility limit for AAA scholarships from its current level – 150 percent of the median household income, or nearly $65,000 in Alabama – to 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or about $44,000 for a family of four. Forrister on March 11 recommended a limit of 185 percent FPL, which is the threshold for eligibility for reduced-price school meals, as a way “to more precisely target educational scholarships to low-income children.” (Marsh’s original bill would have set the limit at 200 percent FPL.) Scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) would have to re-evaluate students’ eligibility every other year.
(4) “Failing school” would have a different meaning. Another big difference under SB 71 would be a change in the AAA’s definition of “failing school.” The bill would deem a public school to be “failing” if it is “listed in the lowest 6 percent of public K-12 schools based on the state standardized assessment in reading and math” or if the state school superintendent designates it as one. Students zoned for “failing” schools would have first priority for AAA scholarships until July 31 of each year, when any remaining scholarship money could go to eligible students living anywhere in Alabama.
(5) Participating schools and groups that grant AAA scholarships would face additional requirements. SB 71 would require SGOs to report quarterly on how many scholarships they give, as well as how many of them go to students who were zoned for “failing” schools or who already attended private schools. Participating schools would have to give state achievement tests, be accredited within three years and disclose tuition rates online before each semester begins.
(6) Unspent scholarship money would be returned to public education. SGOs would have to use any scholarship funds on hand at the start of a calendar year by no later than June 30 of the following year. Under Marsh’s bill, any such money not spent on AAA scholarships by then would go to the state Department of Education to help support “underperforming” schools.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 31, 2015.
2015 legislative update: Testimony from Arise's Kimble Forrister on proposed Accountability Act changes
Arise’s Kimble Forrister testified before a state Senate committee Wednesday, March 11, 2015, about SB 71. The bill would make numerous changes to the Alabama Accountability Act, which provides state tax breaks for donations to certain groups that give scholarships to pay for private school tuition. Here's the full text of Forrister’s prepared remarks:
“Alabama Arise is a coalition of 150 congregations and organizations that advocate on poverty issues. Our members vote every September to choose our legislative priorities. For 2015, one of the biggest vote-getters was a proposal to do something about the Alabama Accountability Act.
“Many of our members want the Legislature to simply repeal the Accountability Act. SB 71 takes a different approach: not to repeal it, but to improve it. We appreciate Sen. Del Marsh's attempt to make the act more transparent, targeted and accountable. Specifically, we support the effort to more precisely target educational scholarships to low-income children. We recommend setting the income cap at 185 percent of poverty instead of 200 percent, because 185 percent is the income level for reduced-price meals. It’s the accepted poverty benchmark in K-12 school data.
“When it comes to accountability and transparency, we support several revisions in SB 71. If a private school is going to receive taxpayer dollars, certainly it should be accredited by a reputable accrediting agency. Reports filed by scholarship-granting organizations with the Department of Revenue should be public documents with only the names of individual children and parents redacted. Academic credits given at private schools with public money should reflect the same number of subject hours required of public schools. And of course schools that fail to comply with the law should be prohibited from receiving tax dollars.
“Given the condition of state budgets, however, this is not the right time to increase the cap on tax-deductible donations to SGOs, nor to allow retroactive tax deductions. We do not believe the expanded definition of ‘failing school’ is in the best interest of our schools or our children when Alabama is still funding K-12 at $5.9 billion, nearly a billion dollars below 2008. The Rolling Reserve is good in theory, but it should be recalibrated so its baseline is not in the trough of the recession. Just like your professor who removes your lowest test grade, we could remove the worst year from the calculation and provide books, buses and teachers our schools desperately need.
“But back to SB 71: We recommend additional reforms to the Accountability Act. We encourage the committee to consider limiting the size of scholarships to ensure that private schools keep tuition costs in line with other schools in the market, not boost tuition to get these dollars. The law should require regular independent CPA audits of all entities receiving tax-funded contributions, both SGOs and participating schools. If a private school is to be supported by public funds, its standardized tests should be the same tests administered in public schools and approved by the Department of Education—so parents can compare apples-to-apples when choosing a school. Finally, we suggest lowering the drain on the ETF by reducing the tax credit for SGO contributions to 25 percent of tax liability. Thank you for your time.”Top of Form
2015 legislative update: Four things to know about Alabama's 2016 funding challenges
It’s the latest verse of a decades-old song: Alabama faces yet another funding shortfall next year for vital services like Medicaid, mental health care and corrections. Here are four things to know about the budget challenges facing the Legislature during the 2015 regular session that began Tuesday.
(1) Alabama’s revenues for the budgets that fund education, health care and other services still haven’t returned to pre-recession levels.
Alabama has two major state budgets: the Education Trust Fund (ETF), which pays for K-12 and higher education, and the General Fund (GF), which provides a major chunk of the support for vital non-education services, including Medicaid, mental health care, corrections and public safety. The picture that revenue officials painted for each on Tuesday was bleak.
Economic struggles during and after the Great Recession hammered both budgets, and neither has seen revenues return to pre-recession levels. GF receipts last year were down 15.5 percent since 2008, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO), and ETF appropriations this year are down 12.2 percent from their 2008 level. Alabama’s K-12 cuts since 2008 are the nation’s second worst, while our higher education cuts are the nation’s fifth worst. Alabama’s unemployment rate is improving, but revenues still aren’t growing nearly enough to undo the damage wrought by the Great Recession.
(2) The General Fund shortfall is persistent, and it’s not going away on its own.
The picture is especially bleak for the GF. Alabama’s education budget draws most of its money from state sales taxes and individual income taxes, which grow as the economy improves. But the GF relies on a hodgepodge of other revenue sources, most of which are slow to grow even during boom times.
That leaves the GF with a structural deficit, meaning revenue growth is not strong enough to keep pace with ordinary cost growth for vital services like Medicaid, mental health care and corrections. Without new GF revenue, these services continually will remain at risk of massive cuts.
(3) Alabama needs new revenue to avoid devastating cuts to vital services like Medicaid, mental health care and corrections.
How bad could the cuts for Medicaid, mental health care and other GF services get without new revenue? Perhaps most dramatically, failure to address the GF shortfall could spell disaster for Medicaid, which provides health coverage for one in five Alabamians and already has been cut to the bone of federally required coverage provisions. Even small further cuts could endanger lives.
GF cuts could mean even shorter staffing for the state’s overcrowded prison system, which operates at nearly twice its designed capacity. It also could mean fewer state troopers on the highways, more trial delays, longer lines to renew a driver’s license, or long waiting periods for many families seeking ALL Kids health coverage for their children.
Next year’s GF shortfall will be $264 million, according to Executive Budget Office (EBO) estimates. That would be a 14 percent drop in a perennially underfunded budget that already struggles to fund barebones service levels.
But the funding challenges don’t end there. EBO’s Bill Newton said Tuesday that Alabama also needs an additional:
Add it all up and it comes to $541 million in new GF revenue needs. That’s the amount that Gov. Robert Bentley proposes to raise with a mix of tax increases and loophole closures. “We must break the cycle of budget shortfalls year after year after year,” Bentley said Tuesday night during his State of the State address. “We must have adequate means.”
(4) Taxing low-income Alabama families deeper into poverty is not the way to cure our funding woes.
Alabama’s tax system is upside down. Low- and middle-income families pay twice as much of their income in state and local taxes as the top 1 percent of earners do. It’s an imbalanced structure that makes it harder for low-income families to escape poverty and leaves them with less money for the consumer spending that fuels economic growth. The main driver of this upside-down tax system? High sales taxes, especially on groceries and other necessities that account for a big share of low-income families’ household budgets.
Significantly, Bentley’s plan would not increase taxes on food, clothing or over-the-counter drugs. Instead, the governor proposes to raise more than $400 million by increasing the state’s cigarette tax and sales tax on automobiles. Bentley’s proposal would boost the cigarette tax from 42.5 cents per pack to $1.25 per pack and would increase the state sales tax rate on automobiles (now 2 percent) to match the 4 percent rate that applies to other consumer goods.
The rest of the new revenue would come from a mix of business tax increases and loophole closures. (One proposal is for Alabama to adopt combined reporting, which would treat corporations and their subsidiaries as one corporation for tax purposes. You can learn more about combined reporting here.)
Strong investments in services like education, Medicaid and public safety promote economic growth and improve our state’s quality of life. By funding those investments without raising taxes on necessities like food and clothing, Alabama can give everyone a better opportunity to get ahead in life.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 4, 2015.
2014 legislative update: General Fund budget, changes to Alabama's landlord-tenant law enacted
Next year’s General Fund (GF) budget became law Thursday night when the Alabama House ended the 2014 regular session without considering Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed amendment to it. Bentley’s changes to the $1.8 billion GF budget were enacted automatically when the House adjourned. Check out AL.com’s report to learn more about Thursday’s action.
Bentley still must decide whether to sign the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget or veto it and order the Legislature to return for a special session. Bentley urged lawmakers to approve a 2 percent pay raise for K-12 teachers next year, but the ETF budget sent to him did not include a teacher raise or bonus. Click here to learn more about the ETF budget.
GF support for the Department of Corrections would fall by about $2 million, or 0.5 percent, next year under the budget, even though Alabama’s prison system is operating at nearly twice its designed capacity. The budget includes $3.5 million for an overflow facility to help house some inmates from the overcrowded Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka. The spending plan also includes $250,000 for a new ombudsman program for Tutwiler prisoners who report mistreatment.
State employees would receive a one-time $400 bonus next year under lawmakers’ GF budget. Bentley’s amendment changed the funding source for those bonuses but did not eliminate them. Medicaid funding would increase by 11.4 percent next year, though the amount would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said earlier this year that Medicaid could endure at the proposed funding level by cutting costs in the prescription drug program and other areas. Click here to learn more about the GF budget.
Landlord-tenant law revisions, AHIP bill among other enacted legislation
Alabama landlords will have more time to refund a security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping some or all of it under a new law enacted last month. SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, will increase that window from 35 days to 60 days. The law also will allow landlords to treat a property as abandoned if electrical service is cut off for at least a week.
In addition, landlords will have to provide only a seven-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease for a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. That’s down from the previous 14-day timetable. SB 291 gives renters four chances every 12 months to correct problems cited as a lease violation without getting the landlord’s written consent. The measure passed 28-0 in the Senate and 98-0 in the House.
The Alabama Health Insurance Program (AHIP) will come to an end under another law enacted last month. SB 123, sponsored by Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, will transfer any remaining unused and unobligated program funds to the GF. Supporters said AHIP, which offers “guaranteed-issue” health coverage, is no longer needed because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires insurers to offer coverage regardless of a person’s health history. Blackwell’s bill passed 21-0 in the Senate and 90-0 in the House.
Before the ACA, applicants with pre-existing conditions like cancer often struggled to find coverage. Alabama created AHIP as a high-risk pool to cover certain residents who were turned down by other insurers after Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996.
By Chris Sanders, communications director, and M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted April 4, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Alabama Legislature passes ETF budget, goes home without approving bills on payday lending, execution drug secrecy
Alabama lawmakers passed a $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget without a pay raise for K-12 teachers just before the 2014 regular session ended Thursday night. The House voted 54-45 to agree to the compromise budget that the Senate approved Tuesday. That leaves Gov. Robert Bentley, who urged the Legislature to approve a 2 percent raise for teachers next year, to decide whether to sign the ETF budget or veto it and order lawmakers to return for a special session. Check out AL.com’s report to learn more.
Many other proposals cleared one chamber but did not win final legislative approval before the regular session ended Thursday. Among the subjects of bills that lawmakers did not send to Bentley were:
Much discussion, no Senate passage of payday loan database, execution drug secrecy bills
The payday loan database bill reached the Senate floor twice Thursday afternoon. Senators initially delayed action on HB 145 after Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, expressed concern about the security of borrowers’ information in the database. About an hour later, the Senate returned to the measure and added three amendments to it.
One amendment, offered by Sen. Shadrack McGill, R-Woodville, would have doubled the bill’s payday loan cap from $500 to $1,000. Two other amendments came from Sens. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville. Immediately after adopting the amendments, senators agreed to postpone action on HB 145, and the chamber did not take it up again before adjournment.
Senators debated the death penalty drug secrecy bill three separate times Thursday afternoon but ultimately did not vote on it. Ward tried to amend HB 379 to allow people injured while handling such drugs to sue, but the Senate did not accept that proposal. “No one in the state of Alabama should ever be granted absolute immunity for negligence or gross negligence they commit against somebody else,” Ward said while arguing for his amendment.
The failure to pass HB 379 could bring lethal injections to a halt in Alabama by making it impossible for the state to buy the drugs used in the process, Ward said. “By opposing this bill and killing this bill, what we’re doing is ensuring is this state will go back to the system of the electric chair,” he said. Alabama began using lethal injection in executions after the state retired “Yellow Mama,” the electric chair used from 1927 to 2002.
The three other bills listed above did not reach the House or Senate floor Thursday. The HIV drug redistribution bill, HB 138, passed 99-0 in the House last month and was on the Senate’s final special-order calendar Thursday, but senators adjourned with several measures still lined up ahead of it. Arise and other consumer advocates last year urged Bentley to support this policy change as his Medicaid Pharmacy Study Commission met to consider ways to reduce costs in the state’s Medicaid drug assistance programs.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted April 3, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Alabama Legislature OKs new requirements for TANF recipients, doesn't end lifetime SNAP, TANF bans for people with felony drug conviction
People convicted of a drug-related felony will remain ineligible for food assistance or cash welfare benefits in Alabama after the state House adjourned Thursday night without passing a bill to end the state’s lifetime eligibility bans for them. Lawmakers approved several other bills related to public benefits this week, including a requirement for some applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, cleared the Senate 18-8 in February but lost a procedural vote in the House on Wednesday. Most House members voted to consider the bill, but the majority fell short of the three-fifths support needed under House rules to send the bill to a floor vote. The House did not consider the proposal again on Thursday, the final day of the 2014 regular session.
Coleman’s bill would have allowed otherwise eligible people to receive food assistance or cash welfare benefits even if they have a prior felony drug conviction, as long as they have completed their sentence or are complying with their probation terms, including court-ordered drug treatment.
Alabama is one of 10 states where people convicted of a drug felony face a lifetime eligibility ban under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, said Wednesday. Alabama also is one of 12 states to apply a similar ban to TANF benefits, Scott said. The bans apply even to people with a decades-old offense.
Lawmakers send other legislation affecting SNAP, TANF recipients to governor
TANF applicants who had a drug conviction in the last five years would have to pass a drug test to receive benefits under a bill that the House passed 73-27 Thursday. SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, would require the Department of Human Resources (DHR) to pay for initial drug tests, as well as any later required tests that the applicant passes. The bill would allow someone else to receive benefits on behalf of other family members if an applicant fails two or more drug tests. SB 63’s provisions would expire in 2017 unless reauthorized.
Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, said the bill is more narrowly tailored than a Florida drug testing law that a federal judge struck down late last year and said the measure could save Alabama money. “I think it’s a bad idea for the taxpayers to fund someone’s drug habit,” Rich said. “We have got to get people in a position where they understand they have to be responsible for their own lives.”
Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, questioned whether SB 63 would save Alabama any money at all. Bracy noted that the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) did not attach a dollar amount to how much the state might save under the bill. The LFO’s fiscal note says the bill would increase DHR’s obligations “by an undetermined amount” that “could be offset in total or in part” by not paying TANF benefits to people who fail a drug test.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, called it “embarrassing” to demand that some TANF applicants provide a urine sample to the state. “The majority of people who are on public assistance are hard-working folks who are doing the right thing,” England said. “Most of the people who go down there [to apply] have to swallow a great deal of pride in the first place.”
People would have to apply for at least three jobs before applying for TANF under legislation the House passed 70-33 Wednesday night. The Senate voted 28-1 Thursday to agree to the House version of SB 115 and send it to Gov. Robert Bentley. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would require recipients to comply with DHR’s requirements for job search preparation, education and other employment activities.
Another proposal that won House approval Wednesday night would forbid TANF recipients to use EBT cards in bars, liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors and adult entertainment establishments. SB 116, sponsored by Orr, also would prohibit the use of TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco. The House passed the bill 80-22.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted April 3, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Bill to end lifetime SNAP, TANF bans still alive but loses procedural vote in Alabama House
A bill to allow people convicted of a drug-related felony to regain eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits in Alabama suffered a setback Wednesday when it failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the state House. The House voted 55-43 Wednesday to consider SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham. That majority fell short of the three-fifths support needed under House rules to advance the bill to a floor vote.
The House still could reconsider the bill, which the Senate passed 18-8 in February, though that is not guaranteed. This year’s regular session will end Thursday, and many bills still await House consideration.
Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, said SB 303 would address the imbalance of a state policy that denies eligibility to those convicted of a felony drug offense but not other crimes. “This is a very simple bill that brings about fairness,” Scott said. “These people have served their time, and I think it’s only right that they be able to take advantage of these programs.”
Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, spoke against the bill, saying he would like to see public assistance bans extended to apply to people convicted of many other crimes as well. Rich urged his colleagues to join him in opposing SB 303.
Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said many people convicted of drug crimes struggle with addiction and deserve a second chance. “We’re making it so criminal to the point where we’re forgetting about the sickness,” Warren said. “The biggest thing about Christianity is forgiveness.”
SB 303 would allow thousands of Alabamians who were convicted of a drug-related felony but are otherwise eligible for assistance to regain eligibility for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. To regain eligibility under the bill, people with a felony drug conviction must have completed their sentence or be complying successfully with their probation conditions. The bill’s provisions would expire in three years unless lawmakers renew them.
Alabama is one of 10 states where people convicted of a drug felony face a lifetime SNAP eligibility ban, Scott said, and one of only 12 states to apply a similar ban to TANF benefits. The bans apply even to people with a decades-old offense.
House approves certain limits on use of TANF benefits
A bill to prevent TANF recipients from using EBT cards in bars, liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors and adult entertainment establishments met a different fate Wednesday. The House voted 80-22 for SB 116, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which also would prohibit using TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco. The bill will go to Gov. Robert Bentley.
Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, said Alabama could lose 5 percent of its federal TANF funding if the state does not approve such benefit restrictions. But Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, questioned whether the EBT card bill would place an unfair stigma on low-income Alabamians. “I don’t understand for the life of me why we’re spending time on this,” Knight said Tuesday night during debate over SB 116.
Lawmakers will return Thursday for the final day of the 2014 regular session.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted April 2, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Alabama House sends tight General Fund budget to Bentley; ETF plan wins Senate approval, awaits House vote
The Alabama House voted 76-25 Tuesday night to agree to the Senate version of the General Fund (GF) budget and send it to Gov. Robert Bentley for his consideration.
GF support for the Department of Corrections would fall by about $2 million, or 0.5 percent, next year under the budget, even though Alabama’s prison system is operating at nearly twice its designed capacity. The $1.8 billion GF budget includes $3.5 million for an overflow facility to help house some inmates from the overcrowded Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka. The spending plan also includes $250,000 for a new ombudsman program for Tutwiler prisoners who report mistreatment.
State employees would receive a one-time $400 bonus next year under lawmakers’ GF budget. Medicaid funding would increase by 11.4 percent next year, though the amount would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said earlier this year that Medicaid could endure at the proposed funding level by cutting costs in the prescription drug program and other areas. Click here to learn more about the Legislature’s GF budget.
Alabama Senate narrowly passes education budget
The Alabama Senate voted 18-16 Tuesday for a compromise Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that would boost state funding for K-12 teachers’ health insurance but would not give them a pay raise next year. The budget awaits House consideration.
The $5.9 billion plan would include money to hire 70 additional middle school teachers, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. That would be down from 400 in the House-passed budget and 200 in the version that a House-Senate conference committee proposed last month. Check out the Advertiser’s report to learn more about the ETF budget.
If the House accepts the Senate’s latest changes, the ETF budget will go to Bentley. The education budget will be one of many bills still pending when lawmakers return Wednesday afternoon for the 29th of 30 meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to end Thursday.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted April 1, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Questions about corrections, teacher insurance funding remain as Alabama Legislature takes break
Alabama’s General Fund (GF) and Education Trust Fund (ETF) budgets both made progress toward becoming law Thursday, but the Legislature went home before sending either budget to Gov. Robert Bentley. Lawmakers will have just three more meeting days to finalize both budgets when they return from spring break April 1. Both budgets would fall short of their pre-recession funding levels.
The Senate voted 30-2 Thursday for a $1.8 billion GF budget almost identical to the one that a Senate committee approved Wednesday. The House adjourned for the day before the vote, so it could not weigh in on the Senate’s changes. House members could agree to the Senate’s budget or send it to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions.
GF support for the Department of Corrections would fall by about $2 million, or 0.5 percent, next year under the Senate’s budget, even though Alabama’s prison system is operating at nearly twice its designed capacity. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the Joint Legislative Prison Committee, said the recent federal report on problems at the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka “should have been a wakeup call for all of us.” The Senate’s GF budget includes $3.5 million for an overflow facility to help house some inmates from the overcrowded prison. The GF proposal also includes $250,000 for a new ombudsman program for Tutwiler prisoners who report mistreatment.
Tough decisions lie ahead for lawmakers in the next few years, Ward said, and he predicted sentencing reform proposals will be among them. “Money alone will not get us out of this trouble,” Ward said. “If we don’t deal with it, trust me, in the next couple of years, someone will deal with it for us.”
State employees each would receive a $400 bonus next year under the Senate’s budget. Senators voted 15-13 to reject a proposal by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, to provide a 3 percent raise instead. Medicaid funding would increase by 11.4 percent next year, though the amount would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said Medicaid could endure at the proposed funding level by cutting costs in the prescription drug program and other areas.
Conference committee trims pre-K, DHR increases in education budget
A legislative conference committee Thursday scaled back funding increases for the state’s pre-K program and the Department of Human Resources (DHR) under next year’s ETF budget. Neither the House nor the Senate considered the compromise plan before adjournment Thursday.
Committee members amended the $5.9 billion budget to boost the amount set aside to repay money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) in prior years. The ATF, which receives royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling in Alabama’s coastal waters, is the funding source for the ETF’s rainy day account. About $45 million would go toward repayment under the compromise budget, up from $27.6 million in the version that the House narrowly passed Tuesday.
The committee’s budget would pare back ETF funding increases for pre-K, DHR and other services. Alabama’s pre-K program would get $8 million more next year, down from the $10 million boost in the House’s budget. DHR would receive an extra $13 million, not $14 million, from the ETF to help offset a proposed GF cut. Dual enrollment programs also would lose $1 million of their proposed increase.
K-12 teachers would not see a raise or a bonus next year under the committee’s plan. The compromise budget includes money to hire 200 new K-12 teachers next year. (The House budget would have paid for 400 new middle school teachers.) The committee’s plan would increase state funding for teachers’ health insurance, though not by as much as Bentley requested. The governor and lawmakers are nearing an agreement on insurance funding, the Montgomery Advertiser reported Thursday night.
Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, who chairs the Senate’s ETF budget committee, said meeting the state’s constitutional duty to repay the rainy day fund is a high priority. Pittman also said he is concerned that some agencies traditionally funded out of the GF have begun relying more and more on the ETF for their state support. “As long as we allow this money to continue to be shifted, we’re undermining the intent to keep those funds to utilize for education,” Pittman said. “It doesn’t leave us with enough money to do what we need to do.”
Budgets still struggling with recession’s legacy
Alabama is one of the only states with two major state operating budgets. The ETF budget funds K-12 schools, two-year colleges and public universities, as well as other state and local services related to education. The GF budget provides support for all other state services, including public health, public safety and child welfare.
Individual income taxes and sales taxes are set aside for the ETF and can be spent only on educational functions. Revenues from sales taxes and income taxes tend to rise and fall with the economy, allowing the education budget to make up for bad years during good years and to save some money for years when the economy is not doing as well.
The GF budget lacks this flexibility because its revenue sources are not as responsive to economic changes and do not grow quickly enough to keep pace with cost increases. That leaves the GF with a structural deficit, meaning it often is strapped for cash even when the economy is doing well.
Both budgets will be awaiting legislative action when lawmakers return April 1 for the 28th of 30 meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 20, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Alabama Senate committee amends execution drug secrecy bill, approves HIV drug redistribution bill
An Alabama Senate committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that would keep the identities of people involved in carrying out state-sanctioned executions secret in most instances. But the Senate Health Committee amended the bill to divulge the names of companies that manufacture or supply lethal injection drugs if a judge orders their release. HB 379, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, awaits consideration by the full Senate.
The original HB 379 would have kept secret, in all instances, the identity of people involved in carrying out executions, along with the identity of the maker and provider of drugs used in lethal injections. Greer said states that use lethal injection in executions have difficulty obtaining drugs for that purpose because many companies fear lawsuits.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is an attorney who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves on the Health Committee. Ward said he understands the goals of Greer’s bill but has grave concerns about “creating an area of complete immunity” in state law that prohibits divulging the information in every instance. The committee approved two Ward amendments to allow the information to be released under a court order.
Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, said the state should not enact a law that effectively could prevent prosecution in all cases. “Somebody could inject Drano and not be prosecuted” under the original bill, Coleman said.
Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, said decisions about immunity are not easy ones. He pointed to people in the audience from a victim’s advocacy organization. Beasley said the issues gave him an uneasy feeling of protecting “someone who committed the crime of death,” but he voted for Ward’s amendments and the bill.
Randy Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said the law would apply to a very narrow set of circumstances involving a shrinking number of drug providers. Some defense attorneys seeking to stop executions file court challenges related to the drugs used in lethal injections.
Alabama began using lethal injection in executions after the state retired “Yellow Mama,” the electric chair used from 1927 to 2002. Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, questioned whether the state might have to return to using electrocution to carry out death sentences if HB 379 does not pass.
Bill to allow redistribution of some unopened HIV drugs advances
The Senate committee Wednesday also approved a bill that would enable pharmacists at or affiliated with HIV clinics to redistribute unused HIV medications originally prescribed for other patients. HB 138, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, awaits consideration by the full Senate. Committee members amended Todd’s bill to match a similar bill – SB 437, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham – that won committee approval last week.
HIV clinics now must destroy unopened medications if patients do not show up for treatment. HB 138 would allow pharmacies to dispense those drugs to other patients and would set controls on handling and oversight of the drugs. Arise and other consumer advocates last year urged Gov. Robert Bentley to support this policy change as his Medicaid Pharmacy Study Commission met to look at ways to reduce costs in the state’s Medicaid drug assistance programs.
Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 27th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted March 19, 2014.