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2015 legislative update: A quiet win: SNAP, TANF eligibility bans end under new Alabama prison reform law
Tucked away in the new prison reform law that Gov. Robert Bentley signed Thursday is a big win for second chances in Alabama: an end to the state’s lifetime eligibility bans for SNAP and TANF assistance for people with a past felony drug conviction. It’s a win on an issue that has been an Arise priority since 2013, and it means a fresh start for people who have served their time and are seeking to rebuild their lives.
For ACPP, it all started in 2013 when Jacquelyn Hardy of Birmingham made a passionate case for ending the bans at our annual meeting, where members vote each year on our issue priorities. Before Hardy’s presentation, few of us knew that Alabama bars anyone with a felony drug offense from ever receiving food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Afterward, no one who heard her could forget.
Advocates found an ally in Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, who agreed to sponsor a bill to end Alabama’s lifetime SNAP and TANF bans for people who have completed their sentence or are successfully serving probation or parole. Coleman’s bill passed the Senate easily in 2014 but died in the House after losing a procedural vote.
Supporters didn’t give up, and their persistence worked. This year’s big breakthrough came during Senate floor debate on SB 67, the prison reform bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Coleman offered language ending the SNAP and TANF bans as an amendment to Ward’s bill, and Ward agreed to support it. The Senate passed the prison reform bill, including the amendment, 32-2 in early April.
When the bill reached the House, Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, helped ensure that the language ending the SNAP and TANF bans remained in the bill. The House passed the measure 100-5 on May 7, and the Senate signed off on the House version the same day.
The prison reform law is set to take effect Jan. 30, 2016, but one big hurdle remains: Alabama still has to pay for it. None of the bill’s provisions, including the end to the SNAP and TANF bans, can go into effect until the Legislature appropriates $26 million to fund the bill’s other reform measures.
Even though the SNAP and TANF provision is almost entirely a question of federal costs, it will go into effect only if the prison reform funding is approved. Ward insists leaders have assured him the needed money will be included in the General Fund (GF) budget – one of the few glimmers of hope in the protracted battle over a GF budget that desperately needs new revenue to avoid deep cuts to vital services like corrections and health care.
For thousands of people leaving prison, the restoration of SNAP and TANF benefits will mean a huge improvement in their ability to make a fresh start and support their families. Thanks to the support of lawmakers like Coleman and Ward and the determination of advocates like Jacquelyn Hardy, Alabama has achieved a policy change that will help families for decades to come.
By Kimble Forrister, executive director. Posted May 21, 2015.
2015 legislative update: Medicaid long-term care options would expand under bill that clears Alabama House committee
More Alabamians with Medicaid coverage would have more options for long-term home and community care under a bill that the House Health Committee approved unanimously Thursday. The bill, which the Senate passed 30-0 Tuesday, now goes to the full House for consideration.
SB 431, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, would deliver comprehensive Medicaid long-term care services, including in-home and other community-based services and nursing home care, through one or more integrated care networks (ICNs). A House version of the plan – HB 585, sponsored by Rep. April Weaver, R-Brierfield – won committee approval earlier this month.
The legislation would set up a cost-effective, managed-care health delivery system for seniors and for people with disabilities who have Medicaid coverage and meet the criteria for admission to a nursing home. The bill would remove caps on the number of Alabamians eligible to receive less costly at-home and community-based Medicaid services. The plan would give patients more options in care while retaining the more costly nursing home option if needed.
The ICN plan would be similar in structure to the regional care organizations (RCOs) into which other Medicaid patients will move. The state’s new RCO model is designed to keep patients healthier while cutting costs.
The ICN plan was developed with input from the nursing home industry, health experts and advocates on the Medicaid Long-Term Care Workgroup, of which Arise is a member. The bill calls for each ICN to have a Citizens’ Advisory Committee that includes members nominated by Alabama Arise and a number of advocacy partners.
By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted May 21, 2015.
2015 legislative update: Alabama Legislature passes bill to require annual report on state tax breaks
Alabamians could learn far more about the cost and effectiveness of state tax breaks under a bill that the Legislature passed without a single “no” vote. SB 119, sponsored by Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, passed 92-0 in the House on Tuesday and 30-0 in the Senate in March. The Senate agreed with the House’s changes Thursday, and the bill awaits Gov. Robert Bentley’s signature.
SB 119 would require the Legislative Fiscal Office to provide an annual “tax expenditure” report to legislative budget committees. This report would list all tax exclusions, exemptions, deductions, credits and special rates and estimate the amount of revenue that the state forgoes as a result of these tax breaks. Alabama was one of only seven states with no such report as of 2011, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. SB 119 also requires biannual public hearings on tax breaks.
ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister praised lawmakers’ approval of the bill. “For years, ACPP has called for greater transparency and accountability when tax breaks are given by the Legislature,” Forrister said. “SB 119 will ensure that legislators and the public know how much revenue is diverted by these tax breaks. We appreciate Sen. Hightower’s leadership in bringing this bill and urge the governor to sign it.”
Tax expenditures are provisions in state or federal tax codes that reduce the amount of tax owed by households or corporations. These tax breaks are sometimes called “spending through the tax code” because, like spending, they are intended to achieve policy goals. But tax expenditures often get far less scrutiny than spending does.
States commonly give tax breaks to individuals by exempting certain income from being taxed, by allowing some expenses to be deducted from income, or by charging different tax rates on different types and levels of income. Examples of individual tax breaks include the personal exemption and the mortgage interest deduction.
Corporate tax breaks often are billed as a way to help recruit industry into a state or keep businesses from relocating to another state. These breaks can include reduced sales, income, property or employer taxes.
Tax breaks can become hotly debated public issues, like when Alabama is in a bidding war with other states for big projects like the Boeing or Mercedes plants. But often, tax breaks are issued automatically and receive little public, or even legislative, attention. Many of these tax breaks are tilted toward higher-income taxpayers, because they are more likely to owe taxes and to invest in deduction-eligible projects.
The Legislature has created hundreds of tax breaks in recent decades, and 2015 has been no different. Lawmakers this year have approved several new tax incentives to reduce taxes for businesses that hire military veterans, locate in rural or high-poverty communities, create new jobs, or reinvest in existing industries.
Some of Alabama’s tax breaks may create new jobs and help reduce poverty, while others may not. An annual tax expenditure report would help shed light on these breaks and allow the public and lawmakers to decide whether the investment has been worth the cost.
Studies have found that tax breaks have little influence on individual or corporate decisions and that the breaks often are not a better public investment than the schools, health care, public safety or other vital services that the money could have paid for instead. SB 119 would help Alabamians evaluate how much revenue the state forgoes through its tax code and whether these breaks are good for our state.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted May 21, 2015.
2015 legislative update: Title loan reform bill gets hearing, but Alabama House committee doesn't vote on it
An auto title loan reform bill finally got a public hearing before the Alabama House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, nearly two months after its introduction. But as is customary, the committee did not vote on the bill on the same day as the hearing. A vote could come next week.
HB 400, sponsored by Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, would cap interest rates on title loans in Alabama at 36 percent a year. State law now allows title lenders to charge rates of up to 300 percent a year.
Several people testified about the bill, including a spokeswoman for TitleMax, one of the nation’s largest title lenders. She claimed a 36 percent rate cap would put title lenders out of business.
Supporters testifying in favor of the bill included Arise’s Stephen Stetson, Joe Godfrey of the Alabama Citizens’ Action Program (ALCAP) and Alabama Appleseed legal director Shay Farley. Farley explained the dollar cost of high-cost auto title transactions to committee members. “Anybody can look at the numbers and see that this isn’t right,” she said.
HB 400, this year’s only title loan reform bill, was introduced in early April and has 67 bipartisan co-sponsors, nearly two-thirds of the House’s membership. With just seven meeting days left in the 2015 regular session, time is running short for the bill to clear both the House and Senate. Check out the Montgomery Advertiser’s coverage to learn more.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted May 20, 2015.
2015 legislative update: Medicaid, mental health, child care would be slashed under Alabama House's General Fund budget
Alabamians’ quality of life would suffer for years to come if the no-new-revenue General Fund (GF) budget that the state House passed 66-36 Tuesday becomes reality. The barebones budget would slash vital services like health care, child care and public safety. Alabama’s promising new reforms of Medicaid and prisons would end, and services for low-income children could face devastating cuts. The budget now goes to the Senate.
“Alabama simply can’t afford the cuts in the no-new-revenue General Fund budget,” Arise’s Kimble Forrister said Tuesday. “It’s time to stop cutting the services that make our state a better, healthier place to live and to start investing in Alabama’s future.”
At no point during floor debate did a House member mention Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to raise $541 million in GF revenue. The bills, including proposals to increase the state cigarette tax and the state sales tax on automobiles, still await a House vote.
‘We were elected to govern, not to pander’
Opponents of the budget cuts repeatedly raised concerns about their impact on children, seniors, low-income Alabamians, and people with disabilities. Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, argued that the budget would take food from low-income families. Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, said the cuts would prevent the state’s promising new prison reforms from being implemented. “I don’t know how anyone can be proud to pass prison reform and then not fund it,” Hall said.
Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, emphasized the budget’s proposed cuts to AIDS drug assistance and put the GF debate in stark terms. “People are going to die because of this budget,” Todd said. “We were elected to govern, not to pander.”
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the House’s GF budget committee, said the budget wasn’t what he wanted to present. But “we’re having problems with our colleagues in the Senate and want to give them motivation to come to the table” and identify new revenue, Clouse said.
With the Legislature’s regular session nearing an end, talk of one or more special sessions is running rampant, and the threat of deep cuts to services that make our state a better place to live and work is real. Here is a look at a few of the ways Alabamians would feel the cuts in their everyday lives:
Proposed budget cuts would end new Medicaid reforms and impose severe cuts to other health care programs. The proposed GF budget would reduce Medicaid funding by 5 percent. State Health Officer Don Williamson has said the cut would force Medicaid to abandon its new regional care organization model, designed to keep patients healthier while cutting costs.
Williamson said last month that a smaller 3 percent cut would force the agency to end coverage of outpatient dialysis, forcing kidney patients to be admitted to the hospital to receive routine dialysis. Medicaid also would have to stop paying for adult eyeglasses and prosthetics.
In addition, Medicaid would reduce reimbursement payments to doctors, which could mean fewer physicians treating Medicaid patients. Medicaid also would contract with a single provider of prescription services, likely forcing many local, independent pharmacies to close.
The committee’s budget would also cut home health services for the elderly and disabled. Patients losing these services could be forced to enter much more expensive nursing homes, reducing patients’ independence and increasing costs to the struggling Medicaid program. Funding for life-saving HIV and AIDS medications would be cut by 50 percent.
Proposed budget cuts would reduce community mental health services. In recent years, the Department of Mental Health responded to budget cuts by closing nearly every public mental health hospital. Many advocates applauded the new focus on less restrictive (and less expensive) community-based services.
But the 2016 GF budget proposal would reduce funding for those very services by 5 percent. Patients unable to receive mental health treatment may be forced into private hospitals, or they may end up incarcerated in local jails without access to needed counseling and medications.
Proposed budget cuts would devastate social services for low-income families and children. Together, the House’s GF budget and the education budget awaiting House approval would reduce Department of Human Resources (DHR) funding by 14 percent. Clouse said Tuesday that the addition of revenues already earmarked, or set aside, for DHR would reduce the total cut to 5 percent.
Because much state DHR funding is matched by federal money, the agency’s total cuts would be much larger than the lost state dollars alone. DHR last week outlined severe service reductions in response to the cuts. They would include:
Alabama’s network of Community Action Agencies provides nutrition, housing, Head Start and energy assistance services to low-income people. The proposed GF budget would cut state funding for these services by 50 percent.
Proposed budget cuts would end prison reform and could risk a federal takeover of the state prison system. The House approved GF budget would make devastating cuts to Alabama’s civil and criminal justice system, ensuring that the recently passed (and highly praised) prison reform legislation could not be implemented.
Alabama’s prison system, already operating at nearly twice its designed capacity, would absorb a 5 percent cut under the proposed budget, increasing the risk of federal intervention. The budget also includes major cuts for the very programs needed for prison reform to succeed: drug courts; community corrections; and parole services, essential for reducing recidivism.
Bentley has signed the prison reform bill into law. But before any of those reforms can be implemented, the governor’s office must certify that the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles have enough money to move ahead with the changes. The proposed GF budget would derail prison reform by making this certification impossible.
Our state needs new revenue to avoid these cuts. Overall, the GF budget falls more than $200 million short of the amount needed to prevent deep service cuts and invest in reforms. Lawmakers thus far have not considered Bentley’s proposals to raise revenue and avoid those cuts, including increasing the state cigarette tax and automobile sales tax. Other tax bills that won House committee approval last week also have stalled.
Alabama faces an important choice that will help determine what kind of state our children and grandchildren will inherit. Do we raise new revenue to protect vital services like health care and public safety? Or do we erode our state’s quality of life with devastating cuts to those services? The House budget would side with the latter option, and Alabama would suffer the consequences of that choice for years to come.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted May 19, 2015.
General Fund cuts would undermine Alabama's future
ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister issued the following statement Tuesday, May 19, 2015, in response to the Alabama House’s approval of a General Fund budget that slashes vital services like Medicaid, mental health care and child care:
“The House’s budget would weaken Alabama’s economy and our future. Services like Medicaid, mental health care and child care boost our quality of life and provide the backbone for economic growth. But Alabama has cut these services to the bone in recent years, and the House budget would make the situation even worse. Children, seniors and our most vulnerable neighbors would suffer as a result.
“Alabama simply can’t afford the cuts in the no-new-revenue General Fund budget. It’s time to stop cutting the services that make our state a better, healthier place to live and to start investing in Alabama’s future.”