2014 legislative update: Bills to shorten Alabama's death penalty appeals process speeding toward committee votes
House and Senate committees are set to vote Wednesday afternoon on proposals to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in Alabama. Members of both chambers’ Judiciary Committees gathered Tuesday to hear public testimony on the legislation – HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, and SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison – as well as other bills related to the criminal justice system.
Legislators heard from five speakers at the public hearing, which took place before a standing-room-only crowd. Many other speakers were hoping to be heard, but the committee adjourned after an hour because the House was going into session. Two speakers opposed HB 216 and SB 194, while three spoke in support. Two of the bills’ three proponents were family members of murder victims.
Before the public hearing began, the committees heard from Beau Brown, an attorney with the Alabama Office of Prosecution Services, which helped to draft the bills. Brown briefly explained each of the bills:
Greer sponsors the House bills, while Holtzclaw sponsors the Senate ones. Holtzclaw said he plans to introduce Senate bills that mirror the provisions of HB 217 and HB 219. The package of bills has the support of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.
‘You can’t imagine what you go through’
Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair was dismissive of the idea that the proposals could lead to additional costs for the state. “Those costs all exist now,” he said. Adair told a lengthy and graphic story about a 1988 murder in Cordova. Greg Hunt, convicted of the crime, has been on death row since 1990. Adair described that situation as an unconscionable delay in justice.
Denise Gurganus, the sister of the victim in Hunt’s case, said she had insight on criminal justice policy that most people cannot share. “Until you have lost a loved one to a murder, you can’t imagine what you go through on a daily basis, and it does not stop,” she said.
Sherrie Carter, whose brother-in-law was killed in 1996, was emotional in comparing the amount of time it took to commit the crime to the amount of time the person convicted of killing him has spent on death row. Carter described the state’s lengthy capital appeals process as “just so the defendant can grasp at a thread to get out of what he did.”
‘The cost of this bill will be huge’
Birmingham criminal defense attorney Richard Jaffe said HB 216 and SB 194 could place a tremendous strain on Alabama’s budget and could carry severe unintended consequences.
“You know, 45 percent of our reversals in death cases come because of inadequate assistance of counsel at the trial level, and that’s because of inadequate funding,” Jaffe said. “You get a few thousand dollars to do something that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we’ve already got a shortage of trained attorneys. The cost of this bill will be huge and end up hurting crime victims in the long run because of the reversals of all of these cases.”
Criminal defense attorney Bill Clark, a former president of the Alabama State Bar, focused on the lack of research that had gone into the bills’ potential effects. Clark asked why the bills have not been evaluated by the Alabama Law Institute or the State Bar.
“We have criminal procedure committees that are designed to examine just this sort of thing,” Clark said. “I don’t understand the rush to pass a bill that is difficult to understand. The Bill of Rights was passed to protect citizens from the power of government, and these bills don’t do that.”
Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the fifth meeting day of the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 21, 2014.
2014 legislative update: ETF increase not enough to restore Alabama schools to pre-recession funding
Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but K-12 and higher education need a far larger increase to meet students’ needs adequately, lawmakers heard Tuesday during the second day of state budget hearings in Montgomery.
Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be $134 million, or 2.3 percent, higher next year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. But that amount is far less than the total $474 million in increases that K-12 and higher education officials have requested. It is also 18.7 percent less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Next year’s projected gains will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines.
Poverty, hunger remain challenges for K-12 schools, superintendent says
K-12 schools need $245 million, or 6 percent, more money next year, state school Superintendent Tommy Bice said. That increase would allow the state to hire an additional 450 middle school teachers to help reduce the dropout rate by keeping students engaged in school at a critical age, Bice said. The money also would help the state address other education needs, Bice said, by boosting support for:
Poverty remains the greatest barrier to education in Alabama, Bice said. “Education is the only way to end intergenerational poverty,” he said. Nearly every local school superintendent in the state attended in support of Bice’s presentation.
Child hunger is a major problem for Alabama’s schools, Bice said, and recent reductions in federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have made the problem even more serious. Nearly two-thirds of Alabama schoolchildren now qualify for free lunches, Bice said, a 4 percent increase in only one year. All but two school systems in the state provide breakfast, and more than four out of five children who eat breakfast at school qualify for free breakfasts, Bice said. The prevalence of hunger increasingly is leading schools to provide meals for children in the summer, as well as during the school year.
Alabama’s K-12 schools still are finding success despite chronic underfunding, Bice said. The state’s graduation rate has climbed to 80 percent for the first time ever, he said, an increase of 5 percentage points in one year. High schools also are expanding their collaborations with nearby community colleges, Bice said.
Pre-K, 2-year colleges, universities also request funding increases
Other presenters made the case Tuesday for more money for early childhood education and higher education in Alabama next year. Jenna Ross, director of the Office of School Readiness, asked for more support for the state’s highly touted pre-K programs. High-quality pre-K education closes the achievement gap for low-income students, Ross said. It also increases reading and math scores, decreases school absences, and reduces referrals to special education services, she said.
Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the state’s two-year college system, requested legislative support to expand a GED preparation program to help educate the 479,000 Alabama workers who do not have a high school degree or GED. Another priority for the system is to expand dual enrollment programs between high schools and community colleges, Heinrich said. He also urged an expansion of prison education programs, which he said have been shown to reduce recidivism rates significantly.
Lawmakers should try to restore universities to their 2008 state funding levels next year, said Robert Witt, chancellor of the University of Alabama System. Median tuition at the state’s public universities has increased sharply in recent years amid declining state funding.
The Legislature began the 2014 regular session Tuesday. Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the second meeting day of the session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 14, 2014.
2014 legislative update: More money available for education, less for General Fund services next year
Alabama will have more money available for education next year, but funding is expected to drop for the perennially cash-strapped General Fund (GF), the director of the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) said Monday during the first day of state budget hearings in Montgomery. The GF provides a sizable amount of state funding for Medicaid, mental health care, public safety and other non-education services.
It will not be possible for the Legislature to design budgets that make up the ground lost since 2008, the year before the Great Recession hammered state finances, LFO director Norris Green said. “We are out of the negative numbers but are in the low positives,” Green told lawmakers.
Costs go up, revenue stays flat: The General Fund story
Another new legislative session will bring another round of struggles for the GF budget, which helps fund Medicaid, courts, prisons and other public services. The GF will have $1.7 billion available for 2015, Green said. That amount is $83.3 million, or 4.7 percent, less than this year’s allocations. It also is nearly $287 million, or 14.4 percent, below pre-recession GF spending in 2008, adjusted for inflation.
Without significant new revenues, many services could face deep funding cuts. One-time money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement helped the GF stay afloat this year, but that money will not be available in 2015. A $145.8 million infusion from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) will help prevent further erosion of support for services funded under the GF next year. But additional borrowing from the ATF, which receives royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling in Alabama’s coastal waters, would require a constitutional amendment.
Green said he sees little hope for state employee raises next year, and Gov. Robert Bentley has said they are unlikely. Each 1 percent of salary increase for state employees would cost $17.5 million, the LFO estimates, with only $4.5 million of that amount coming from the GF. Almost all GF agencies get money from other sources, including the federal government, Green said.
Medicaid, other agencies: We need more money to meet current needs
Big questions once again concern how the state will address growing Medicaid costs. State Health Officer Don Williamson said Medicaid will end the current budget year on Sept. 30 without a deficit. “But we will end it flat broke,” Williamson said. Medicaid provides health coverage for about one in five Alabamians, many of them low-income children and seniors.
Medicaid needs $85 million, or 13.8 percent, more GF money next year to meet its expected needs, Williamson said. The agency already has cut reimbursements for dental services, dialysis and services from non-primary care doctors. Williamson said those cuts have raised real concerns about patients’ access to care.
Other services also need more GF money to fulfill their missions next year, agency directors told lawmakers Monday. Williamson requested an extra $10.5 million to help cover higher enrollment in ALL Kids, which insures children whose low- and middle-income families do not qualify for Medicaid. The Department of Mental Health has requested an additional $20 million – three-fourths of it from the GF – to make needed investments in community-based care.
Alabama’s overcrowded prison system asked for another $42 million next year to help fund a pay increase for corrections officers, Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said. State courts need an additional $26.5 million next year to help avoid dozens of layoffs and hire more juvenile probation officers, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said. Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, asked for more money to help expand adult day care and increase foster care payments.
Williamson noted that Medicaid enrollment has continued to increase despite the recent drop in Alabama’s unemployment rate. Buckner made a similar observation about enrollment for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Both speculated that the creation of low-wage jobs may be a factor in those trends.
ETF spending still down nearly a fifth since 2008
Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but the growth will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines. Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be capped at $5.9 billion next year under the Rolling Reserve Act. That amount is $134 million, or 2.3 percent, more than this year’s appropriations. It is less than the amount that K-12 and higher education officials requested, however. It is also $1.36 billion, or 18.7 percent, less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation.
The state is projected to bring in more than $6 billion in ETF revenues next year, Green said, with much of the money that exceeds the spending cap going to repay the ETF’s rainy day fund. Bentley has said he hopes to see teacher raises next year. The LFO estimates the cost of each 1 percent of salary increase for educators is between $34 million and $38 million, but debt repayment obligations may cut into the money available for raises, Green said.
K-12 and higher education leaders will elaborate on their funding needs Tuesday morning during the second day of state budget hearings. The Legislature officially will begin its 2014 regular session Tuesday at noon. State budgets will be a key issue during the session, which is expected to last until early April.
By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders and policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 13, 2014.
Commission to send watered-down constitutional revisions to Alabama Legislature
Due process rights and a judicially enforceable right to public education would not be included in the Alabama Constitution under the proposed new articles approved Thursday by the Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission. The commission did endorse adding equal protection language to the constitution, but explicitly declined to extend those safeguards to gay Alabamians. The state would have to maintain public schools, but lawsuits over that language would be forbidden.
The proposals would have to win lawmakers' approval and pass in a statewide vote next year before officially becoming part of the constitution. This legislative update recaps the commission's debate and decisions on these weighty issues.
Arise legislative update: Legislature OKs historic preservation credits; House approves bill to restore tax break for disabled Alabamians
A bill to create state income tax credits for preserving historic buildings in Alabama went to Gov. Robert Bentley after legislators passed it Thursday. The House also voted for a bill that would restore a full homestead exemption for all disabled Alabamians, regardless of their incomes. This legislative update highlights those issues and others that still remain as the Legislature approaches the final day of the 2013 regular session.
Arise legislative update: Courts warn of job cuts as Alabama Legislature approves tight General Fund budget propped up with one-time money
About 150 court employees could be laid off next year under a General Fund budget that sailed through the Alabama Legislature on Thursday. The $1.75 billion budget, which would provide flat funding for Medicaid and mental health services, would rely on nearly $200 million of one-time money. This legislative update highlights the budget's key provisions and implications.
Arise legislative update: Legislature passes Accountability Act changes to increase corporation donation value, revise 'failing school' definition
Alabama lawmakers gave swift approval Thursday to a bill that would redefine "failing schools" and boost the tax savings for corporations that donate to scholarship funds under the Alabama Accountability Act. The changes to the law, which will subsidize private school tuition for some K-12 students, cleared the House and Senate in hours after supporters quickly shut down debate. This legislative update highlights the bill's numerous provisions and the tenor of the brief debate over it.
Arise legislative update: Governor to decide on education budget with 2% teacher raise, money to help subsidize private school tuition
An Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that would give K-12 teachers and support staff a 2 percent pay increase next year will go to Gov. Robert Bentley after the House approved it 70-26 Thursday. The budget would boost funding for pre-K and Advanced Placement courses but slash support for the Alabama Reading Initiative. It also would set aside $40 million for tax credits that could subsidize private school tuition for some K-12 students. This legislative update highlights the provisions of next year's ETF budget.
Arise legislative update: Alabama Senate OKs education budget with 2% teacher raise
K-12 teachers and support staff would receive a 2 percent pay raise next year under an Education Trust Fund budget that the Alabama Senate passed Tuesday night. The $5.77 billion budget would boost support for pre-K and Advanced Placement courses but cut funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative. It also would set aside up to $40 million for tax credits that could subsidize private school tuition for some students. This legislative update highlights the budget's provisions and recaps the Senate debate over it.
Arise legislative update: Medicaid reform bill passes Legislature, heads to governor
A bill to provide Medicaid services in Alabama through a network of regional care organizations (RCOs) sailed through the House on Tuesday and will go to Gov. Robert Bentley. Alabama Arise and the Disabilities Leadership Coalition of Alabama will recommend representatives to the governing board and citizens' advisory committee of each RCO under the measure. This legislative update highlights how the bill could cut Medicaid costs and improve patient outcomes.