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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.
How does the ACA mandate work?
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires almost everyone in the United States to have health insurance. Many people who have not begun to apply by March 31, 2014, will face a tax penalty, starting with 2014 income taxes they’ll pay in 2015. But some people will be exempt from the penalty, including people in poverty who do not qualify for Medicaid because their state has not expanded Medicaid eligibility.
This one-page overview looks at how the mandate works, who will owe the penalty, and who may be exempt from it. Check it out, then visit www.healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596 to learn more about your coverage options and requirements under the ACA.
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.