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2014 legislative update: Senate passes bill to end Alabama's lifetime SNAP, TANF bans for people with felony drug conviction
People convicted of a drug-related felony could regain their eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits in Alabama under a bill that the state Senate passed 18-8 Thursday. SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, moves to the House.
SB 303 would allow 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. The Senate amended the bill Thursday to say its 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 eligibility ban under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Alabama also is one of 12 states to apply a similar ban to benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The bans apply even to people with a decades-old offense.
Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said SB 303 could help people as they try to overcome a drug addiction and become productive workers. “It’s important to encourage people and try to give them support to be able to make good personal decisions,” Pittman said. “People who have paid their debt … will be able to get modest amounts of money that hopefully will get them on a better path.”
Other legislation affecting SNAP, TANF recipients also wins Senate approval
The Senate’s action Thursday came one day after the chamber voted 25-4 for a bill that would require drug testing for TANF applicants who had a drug conviction in the last five years. The Department of Human Resources (DHR) would pay for initial drug tests under SB 63, 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. The provisions of SB 63, sponsored by Pittman, would expire in 2017 unless reauthorized.
People would have to apply for at least three jobs before applying for TANF under legislation the Senate passed 25-6 Wednesday. SB 115’s sponsor, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, amended the bill at Alabama Arise’s suggestion. One change would ensure that a TANF’s applicant’s cohabiting partner must have a legal obligation to support the applicant’s children before that partner’s income would count in determining TANF eligibility. The other change deleted an obligation for TANF recipients to continue applying for three jobs every week to stay eligible. Instead, recipients would have to comply with DHR’s requirements for job search preparation, education and other employment activities.
TANF recipients could not use EBT cards in bars, liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors and adult entertainment establishments under SB 116, sponsored by Orr. The bill, which the Senate passed 25-0 Wednesday, also would prohibit using TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco.
DHR could not continue to request waivers of federal SNAP work requirements for able-bodied, working-age adults with no dependents under a bill that senators passed 25-5 Wednesday. SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, could limit Alabama’s ability to provide SNAP benefits to some single adults during economic downturns or after natural disasters. The bill that passed in the Senate is far narrower than the original version was.
SB 303 and the other proposals will be among the bills awaiting House consideration when lawmakers return Tuesday for the 20th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders contributed to this report. Posted Feb. 27, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Legacies of recession, chronic shortfalls linger in Alabama's budgets
State support for education and other public services under the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) next year would not come close to its pre-recession level under the budgets that advanced in the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday. Both budgets are built on the assumption that the state will see no major revenue increases next year.
One-time teacher bonus, Alabama State funding cut in Senate committee’s ETF budget
Alabama would allocate $113.9 million, or 1.9 percent, less from the ETF next year under the $5.9 billion budget that won approval Wednesday in the Senate’s ETF budget committee. (By contrast, K-12 and higher education officials had requested $474 million more support next year.) If the budget becomes law, ETF funding in 2015 would be 18.5 percent less than it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation. The full Senate could consider the plan as soon as Thursday.
K-12 teachers would receive a one-time 1 percent bonus next year under the committee’s budget. Gov. Robert Bentley had recommended a 2 percent pay raise, but committee chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said he isn’t sure revenues will grow enough to sustain that pay increase. “You can’t spend optimism,” Pittman said. The committee rejected an attempt by Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, to provide a 6 percent teacher raise.
K-12 schools and two-year colleges would receive slightly more ETF money next year under the committee’s budget, while universities would receive slightly less. The budget would include money to hire more middle school teachers and increase support for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). Funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative would be flat.
Alabama State University (ASU) would lose about one-fourth, or $10.8 million, of its ETF support next year under the budget, accounting for almost the entire overall funding cut to universities. The budget would include $10 million for ASU as a “first-priority conditional,” meaning Bentley could release the money to the university if ETF revenue collections exceed budgeted spending next year.
Flat funding abounds for General Fund services
The House voted 80-20 Wednesday night to approve a GF budget that would be about the same size it was last year and is little different than the one that cleared a House committee last week. The $1.8 billion budget now goes to the Senate.
Medicaid, prisons, mental health care and other public services could struggle to maintain current services at the funding levels in the House’s GF budget. Overall GF support for those and other non-education services would be 8.3 percent lower next year than it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation, despite higher costs and population growth since then.
The House budget would cut GF support for Alabama’s prison system, which operates at nearly twice its designed capacity. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the House’s GF budget committee, said last week that he wants to work with House and Senate leaders to find more money for corrections.
Medicaid would see an 11.4 percent GF increase, though that amount still would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said Medicaid could survive next year at the House’s proposed funding level by looking for more ways to trim costs in the prescription drug program and other areas.
Mental health services would receive the same amount of GF money next year, despite the increased demand for community-based mental health services following the closure of several state mental health hospitals. State courts, which have cut hundreds of jobs in recent years, would receive far less GF funding than they requested.
ALL Kids, which insures Alabama children whose low- and middle-income families do not qualify for Medicaid, would receive 28.3 percent more from the GF to help cover higher enrollment. A $13.9 million ETF boost for the Department of Human Resources (DHR) would help the agency offset an $11.8 million GF reduction. DHR provides child welfare, child support collection and elder abuse services. The agency also administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in Alabama.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said lawmakers have missed several opportunities to ease the burden on state budgets in recent years. Instead, England said, the Legislature has declined to increase the state cigarette tax, reform the state’s criminal sentencing system, or expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.
The GF draws its revenues from a variety of sources that do not grow quickly enough to keep pace with cost increases. That leaves the budget with a structural deficit, meaning it often is strapped for cash even when the economy is doing well.
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said lawmakers eventually must solve Alabama’s perennial GF shortfalls. “At some point, we’re going to have to figure out how to say, ‘We’re going to do better,’” Knight said. “We can’t take care of the basic things we’re supposed to do.”
Time is getting shorter for the Legislature to finalize the budgets. Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 19th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Feb. 26, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Dial grocery tax bill, landlord-tenant changes advance in Alabama Legislature
Many low-income Alabamians could pay more in sales taxes under a bill that cleared a state Senate committee Wednesday. The Senate’s education budget committee voted 6-2 to approve SB 287, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. The measure awaits consideration by the full Senate.
Dial’s bill gradually would end the state’s 4 percent sales tax on groceries and increase the sales tax on other items by 1 percentage point to replace the lost education revenue. By September 2017, the state sales tax on most consumer items would be 5 percent under the bill. That would drive the total state and local sales tax rate in Birmingham and Montgomery to 11 percent.
ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister testified against SB 287 last week, saying it would negate the grocery tax savings for many low-income Alabamians by increasing the cost of everything else they buy. “We’re basically replacing one regressive tax with another regressive tax,” Forrister told lawmakers.
Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, echoed Forrister’s concerns Wednesday. “Everybody knows sales taxes are regressive, and you’re putting it on the backs of people who can least afford it,” Figures said.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said he worried that Dial’s bill would increase taxes on low-income Alabamians who receive food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP recipients do not owe sales taxes on food bought using SNAP benefits, Sanders said, so they would not realize any tax savings on that portion of their grocery bill. But SB 287 would raise the sales taxes they pay on other purchases like clothes and school supplies, he said.
“These people who are at the very bottom and the worst off are going to end up paying sales tax on these other items,” Sanders said.
Landlord-tenant law changes OK’d in House committee
Some deadlines in Alabama’s landlord-tenant law would become more favorable to property owners under a bill that won House committee approval Wednesday. HB 523, sponsored by Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, awaits consideration by the full House.
Beckman’s bill is identical to a Senate proposal – SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston – that cleared a Senate committee last week. The measures would nearly double, from 35 days to 60 days, the time in which landlords must refund a departing tenant’s security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping all or part of the deposit.
The bills also would require landlords to give tenants a seven-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease over a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. Current law requires a 14-day written notice in such a circumstance.
The House and Senate likely will meet into Wednesday night and then return Thursday for the 19th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Stephen Stetson contributed to this report. Posted Feb. 26, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Proposed landlord-tenant law changes softened in Alabama Senate committee
A state Senate committee somewhat softened a set of proposed changes to Alabama’s landlord-tenant law Thursday. The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee approved a substitute version of SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
Marsh’s original bill would have rewritten numerous parts of the state’s 2006 landlord-tenant law in favor of property owners. The committee’s changes would substantially reduce the bill’s impact on the half-million Alabamians who rent their lodgings.
The two biggest changes involve giving renters a second chance to correct mistakes before landlords can seek to evict them. Marsh’s original proposal offered tenants no right to correct, or “cure,” problems cited as a lease violation unless the landlord gave express written consent. The committee substitute would ease this “zero tolerance” provision by giving renters two chances within a 12-month period to correct such problems.
Marsh’s original bill also said any termination of electrical service to the dwelling would constitute legal abandonment of the property and allow landlords to evict tenants. The committee version would require electrical service to be disconnected for a full week before the property could be considered abandoned.
Other parts of the bill remained unchanged, however, including several portions that would adjust deadlines in favor of landlords. For example, a landlord now has 35 days to refund a tenant’s security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping all or part of the deposit. SB 291 would nearly double that time to 60 days.
Current law requires landlords to provide tenants with a 14-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease over a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. SB 291 would halve that timeframe to seven days. Marsh's original bill would have cut the notice period to terminate over failure to pay rent down to four days, but it would remain at the current seven days under the committee version.
HB 523, sponsored by Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, is an identical House bill that reflects the Senate committee’s changes. That measure awaits consideration in the House Commerce and Small Business Committee. Lawmakers will return Tuesday for the 17th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 21, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Medicaid, prison funding challenges remain as Alabama House committee OKs barebones General Fund budget
Medicaid, mental health and other human services in Alabama would face yet another year of tight funding under the General Fund (GF) budget that cleared a state House committee Wednesday. The committee’s version was virtually identical to the one that Gov. Robert Bentley recommended last month.
The committee approved next year’s proposed $1.8 billion operating budget for Medicaid, public safety and other non-education services after little discussion or debate. The budget now goes to the full House, which could consider it as soon as next week.
Big challenges ahead for Medicaid, prisons
Medicaid and state prisons would get nearly half of the GF’s money next year under the House GF budget committee’s plan, continuing the recent trend of those agencies consuming an increasingly larger share of the budget’s dollars. Medicaid would receive a $70 million, or 11.4 percent, increase, while the Department of Corrections would face a cut of $6.8 million, or 1.7 percent.
The committee’s proposed funding level could make it a challenge for Medicaid to maintain current services. Medicaid would remain $15 million short of the $700 million that State Health Officer Don Williamson said last month that it needs from the GF. The agency, which insures about one in five Alabamians, already has cut reimbursements for dental services, dialysis and services from non-primary care doctors. Williamson said the agency could survive next year by looking for more ways to trim costs in the prescription drug program and other areas.
Funding challenges also would remain for the state’s prison system. The corrections cut would come even as state prisons face a shortage of guards and run at nearly twice their designed capacity. Alabama also faces growing demands to hire more female guards, install more cameras and make other prison infrastructure improvements. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the House’s GF budget committee, said he wants to work with lawmakers to find more money for corrections.
Flat funding the norm for many other services
Other critical social services would receive essentially the same amount of GF money next year under the committee’s plan. The Department of Mental Health would be funded at the 2014 level despite the increased demand for community-based mental health services following the closing of several state mental health hospitals.
The Department of Senior Services, which provides Meals on Wheels nutritional assistance to the homebound elderly, was similarly level-funded. State courts, which have cut hundreds of jobs in recent years, also would get much less money than they requested.
The Department of Human Resources (DHR) would receive 16.8 percent, or $11.8 million, less from the GF next year. DHR’s allocation in Bentley’s recommended Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget would nearly double to offset that loss. Between the two budgets, Bentley recommended about a 2 percent increase for DHR. Because the ETF budget has not yet won committee approval, it remains to be seen whether the Legislature will support this increase. DHR provides child welfare, child support collection and elder abuse services. The agency also administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in Alabama.
A children’s health insurance program would get a substantial funding boost next year to help cover higher enrollment. ALL Kids, which insures Alabama children whose low- and middle-income families do not qualify for Medicaid, would receive 28.3 percent more from the GF.
General Fund’s long-term structural deficit remains
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 General Fund budget provides support for all other state services, including public health, public safety and child welfare.
Alabama has the highest rate of “earmarked” revenue in the nation. That earmarking forces lawmakers to spend certain tax proceeds only for very limited purposes. For example, individual income taxes and sales taxes are set aside for the ETF and can be spent only on education. 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 it is funded from a variety of revenues that are not as responsive to economic changes and that 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. Next year’s proposed budget once again illustrates Alabama’s chronically inadequate funding for core services, ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister said.
Time is getting shorter for the Legislature to pass GF and ETF budgets for next year. Lawmakers will return Tuesday for the 17th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders contributed to this report. Posted Feb. 20, 2014.
2014 legislative update: Anti-ACA bill clears Alabama Senate committee
A bill that purports to nullify parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) sailed through an Alabama Senate committee Wednesday with few questions. The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
SB 220’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he needed to pass the bill out of the committee Wednesday but said there would be a chance to make changes. “I have some changes myself,” Fielding said. “There will be opportunity for adjustments.”
The bill cites the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in seeking to refuse to enforce sections of the ACA that “exceed the authority of Congress.” The measure does not specify all the parts of the ACA that are believed to exceed that authority. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ACA’s constitutionality in 2012.
Depending on how state officials would interpret the broadly worded SB 220 if it became law, enforcement might halt Alabama’s compliance with numerous technical provisions of the ACA, including new Medicaid eligibility requirements, information system upgrades and interagency data sharing. Disrupting such activities could jeopardize current federal Medicaid funding, ACPP policy director Jim Carnes said.
SB 220 would authorize the attorney general to file lawsuits on behalf of certain individuals or businesses “being harmed by implementation” of the ACA. The measure also would prohibit Alabama or any of its cities or counties from establishing a health insurance exchange under the ACA.
In addition, the bill would forbid state agencies and employees from conducting “involuntary” home visits under certain maternal, infant and early childhood programs referenced in the ACA. The ACA already requires that all such visits be voluntary. If SB 220 bars all in-home visits under that section of the ACA, the Department of Children’s Affairs could lose $6.3 million a year in federal grants, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Committee member Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, asked whether the bill’s passage could void certain insurance contracts already in force. Fielding said he would welcome a floor amendment to address that concern.
Identical legislation – HB 147, sponsored by Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise – awaits action in the House Health Committee. The Legislature will return Thursday for the 16th 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 Feb. 19, 2014.