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Alabama leads Deep South on children's health coverage, report finds
Alabama is leading its neighbors on an important aspect of childhood health: the uninsured rate for children. Alabama’s 2014 uninsured rate of 3.8 percent is the lowest in the Deep South, according to a new report by Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families (CCF).
“Alabama is doing right by its kids,” said Kimble Forrister, executive director of Arise Citizens’ Policy Project. “When children have health coverage, they can get the care they need to show up for school ready to learn. Their families can take them to the doctor when they’re sick so they don’t wind up even sicker and in need of more expensive care in a hospital.”
Alabama can make better long-term budget plans, study suggests
Alabama fails to employ several budgeting techniques that could help the state avoid budget shortfalls, according to a report released Thursday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C. Alabama could promote greater government efficiency and improve its business climate by adopting budget-planning tools that have worked in neighboring states, the report finds. Among those tools are multi-year revenue projections and cost estimates for continuing to provide current service levels.
“Alabama has bounced from budget crisis to budget crisis for several years,” ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister said. “Our leaders should look at what works in other states and use those methods to bring more stability to Alabama’s budgeting system. People across the political spectrum can agree that having the tools to make good long-term decisions about our state’s future is in everyone’s best interest.”
Budget solutions, lending reform, housing among Arise's 2016 issue priorities
Long-term General Fund solutions, affordable housing, and payday and auto title lending reform are among the goals on Alabama Arise’s 2016 legislative agenda. Other issues are tax reform, “ban the box” legislation, death penalty reform and voting rights legislation. Arise members selected the group’s issue priorities at their annual meeting Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Montgomery.
“We believe in an Alabama where everyone has a voice and an opportunity to get ahead,” Arise’s Kimble Forrister said. “These proposals would create a more level playing field, and they would help hard-working Alabamians build a better life for their children.”
2015 legislative update: A budget at last: What got cut, what didn't, and what's next for Alabama
Three times proved to be the charm Wednesday night as the Alabama Legislature finally passed a General Fund (GF) budget and accompanying revenue bills. Gov. Robert Bentley signed the budget Thursday morning, a mere two weeks before the start of the 2016 budget year.
Tax bills: What passed and what didn’t
Alabama faced a GF budget shortfall of nearly $260 million that was partially filled by a 25-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax. Alabama Arise and health advocates had hoped for a much larger increase that would have raised more revenue and ensured a reduction in smoking, particularly among teens. Unfortunately, the tax approved was inadequate to meet either need.
The Legislature also passed two small provider taxes (each worth about $8 million) on pharmacies and nursing homes. These taxes were dedicated to the Medicaid program and helped save both promising new Medicaid reforms and Medicaid itself.
Facing opposition from ALFA, the Legislature failed to pass business privilege tax changes that would have raised $28 million by increasing taxes on the wealthiest corporations while cutting taxes for tens of thousands of small businesses. Separately, lawmakers also failed to eliminate the state income tax deduction for FICA (e.g., Social Security and Medicare) taxes, which would have raised nearly $200 million for education and other essential state programs.
Through a complicated linkage of bills, the Legislature transferred $80 million in use tax revenues (essentially a sales tax on out-of-state purchases) from education to the GF while also increasing the amount of education money available to public schools. Changes to the Rolling Reserve Act, which sets an artificial cap on annual education spending, replaced the lost use tax revenues by increasing the money available to schools for one-time infrastructure needs like books, building repairs, buses and technology. Alabama’s education funding still hasn’t returned its pre-recession 2008 level.
Altogether, the use tax transfer and the new taxes raised around $164 million. That was enough to prevent devastating cuts to crucial state services, but inadequate to truly fill the budget gap. The changes also were not nearly enough to solve the GF’s chronic shortfall.
Medicaid, DHR, mental health aren’t cut, but other important services are
Because new revenues were inadequate, not all state agencies received the money needed to maintain current service levels. The Department of Public Health was cut by nearly $10 million, of which $2.4 million came from AIDS medication assistance. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management was nearly zeroed out of the budget, endangering the state’s environmental protection and risking federal intervention.
The Department of Youth Services was cut by nearly 20 percent, which almost certainly will result in fewer community services for at-risk children and teens. Senior services also suffered a small cut, though it should not affect the Medicaid waivers that allow hundreds of seniors to live independently outside of nursing homes.
Other essential services survived without the devastating cuts feared earlier this year. The “Big Five” – Medicaid, mental health, corrections, trial courts and the Department of Human Resources – all were funded at or above 2015 GF levels.
Important reforms to Medicaid and the corrections system also will be able to continue. Lawmakers cobbled together additional money to support Medicaid’s transition to a regional care organization model designed to cut costs and keep patients healthier. The GF budget also funds new parole officers and community correctional services as alternatives to lengthy prison sentences.
The prison reform funding was good news on another front: It means Alabama will end its lifetime SNAP and TANF eligibility bans for people with a past felony drug conviction. Language ending the state’s bans on assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is included in the prison reform law that the Legislature passed earlier this year. With funding in place to allow the law to take effect, the SNAP and TANF bans will end Jan. 30, 2016.
Hope for the future
As the last late night of the session wrapped up Wednesday, there were some encouraging signs for the future. For the first time, the conservative supermajority in the Legislature was willing to consider raising taxes, and majorities in both the House and Senate actually voted to do so. Legislative floor debate included real, serious discussion of Alabama’s structural deficit and the need for comprehensive tax reform.
Most importantly, the organized voices of citizens and advocates for low-income Alabamians, seniors, children, and people with disabilities were loud – and effective – in their demand for new taxes instead of devastating cuts to life-saving state services. Constituent emails, telephone calls, postcards and face-to-face meetings with legislators helped to prevent those cuts. They also helped convince the Legislature, though reluctantly and inadequately, to raise tax revenue to support vital services that make Alabama a better place to live and work.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Sept. 18, 2015.
Alabama needs long-term General Fund solutions to invest in our state's future
ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister issued the following statement Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, after the Alabama Legislature’s passage of a General Fund budget that cuts senior services and other vital programs:
“Barely scraping by for another year is no cause for celebration. Alabama is still shortchanging needed investments in education, health care, child care, public safety and other services that make our state a better place to live and work. We must end the cycle of shortfalls and find lasting, progressive funding solutions for these important services.
“Moving growth revenue to the General Fund while protecting education funding was a positive step. It was also promising to see a bright light shined on Alabama’s fundamental budget problems. But our leaders still need to do far more to raise revenue to provide stable, adequate support for services that help working families get ahead. Ending the numerous tax breaks that favor wealthy people and large corporations would be a great place to start.
“Alabama can’t afford more damaging cuts. We need to do better by our children, our seniors and our most vulnerable neighbors. It’s time to fix the state’s upside-down tax system and invest in Alabama’s future.”
200+ groups urge $300 million in new General Fund tax revenue to help keep Alabama strong
More than 200 organizations across Alabama have signed an open letter urging lawmakers to approve $300 million in new General Fund tax revenue to prevent devastating cuts to health care, public safety and other vital services.
Alabama Arise, Alabama Children First and AARP Alabama are among the hundreds of groups to join the Stand Tall Alabama initiative. Other letter signees include many churches, community groups, hospitals, health advocates and statewide organizations across Alabama.
“We’re excited to hear so many voices speak up for new tax revenue to keep Alabama strong,” Arise’s Kimble Forrister said. “The decisions made during this special session will affect our economy and quality of life for years to come. It’s crucial for our leaders to choose a path forward that strengthens our state and ensures all Alabamians have an opportunity to get ahead.”