2016 legislative update: Time running short for payday reform as Alabama House committee holds hearing but doesn't vote
The fate of payday lending reform in Alabama this year could hinge on whether the House Financial Services Committee chooses to meet again before next week, and whether its members approve SB 91, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
The committee chose not to vote on the bill after hearing nearly two hours of testimony Wednesday morning, including support from Arise and other advocates for payday lending reform. Payday loans are short-term loans for $500 or less, and carry annual interest rates of up to 456 percent in Alabama.
Because committee members didn’t vote after the hearing, they will need to reconvene to determine the fate of the bill, which the Senate passed 28-1 earlier this month. If the committee waits until next week to meet, it will reduce the chance that the bill can reach the House floor in time to pass before the 2016 regular session ends. Just five meeting days will remain in the session after this week.
Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, presented Orr’s SB 91 to the committee and emphasized the urgent need to act swiftly. “This is the last chance for reform in this session,” Garrett said.
Orr’s bill would reform Alabama’s payday lending laws to be similar to those in Colorado, where prices for borrowers are substantially lower than Alabama’s. SB 91 would reduce interest rates on payday loans and give borrowers at least six months to repay their loans. It also would allow borrowers to pay down the principal in installments, helping them escape debt more quickly.
In addition to Arise, other supporters testifying in favor of SB 91 included representatives of Alabama Appleseed and the YWCA of Central Alabama, as well as Dr. Neal Berte, a former Birmingham-Southern College president who has been a tireless and persuasive advocate for reform.
The committee also heard opposition from payday lending industry representatives, who said Colorado-style reform would prevent them from making loans in Alabama. Colorado has many payday lenders that remain profitable while charging prices roughly one-third of that typically charged in Alabama.
Title loan bill also receives hearing but not a committee vote
The SB 91 hearing Wednesday followed a separate hearing on HB 526, an auto title loan bill sponsored by Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield. That bill would create a special statute for title loans, removing them from the Alabama Pawnshop Act, which caps the maximum interest rate on title loans at 300 percent a year.
Under HB 526, interest rates on title loans in Alabama would be capped at 120 percent a year, in addition to numerous other provisions regulating the issuance of such loans. In an unusual twist, title lenders and consumer advocates (including Arise) both testified in opposition to the bill.
The committee heard testimony but did not vote in February on a reform bill – HB 326, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham – supported by Arise and other members of the Alliance for Responsible Lending in Alabama (ARLA). The bill would cap title loan interest rates at 36 percent a year.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted April 20, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Plan to help restore voting rights to thousands in Alabama wins Senate committee approval
Thousands of Alabamians could see their voting rights restored under a bill that won a state Senate committee’s approval Wednesday. SB 231, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would clarify the types of crimes classified as “crimes of moral turpitude,” a longstanding murky category of crimes permanently disqualifying offenders from voting in Alabama.
Ward’s bill, which Arise supports, now moves to the Senate. It could reach the Senate floor for a vote as soon as Thursday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee quickly approved the bill after adopting two technical amendments that tweaked the bill’s wording without changing the substance of the proposed reforms. Lawmakers had no other debate about the issue Wednesday.
Secretary of State John Merrill has endorsed SB 231, which fits with the state’s Prison Reform Task Force recommendations regarding ex-felons’ ability to re-enter society successfully as participating and productive citizens. The bill is one of more than a dozen proposals this year to expand or protect voting rights in Alabama. Other legislation seeks to allow early voting and streamline voter registration.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted March 16, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Payday lending reform gains momentum as second bill clears committee in Alabama Legislature
Payday lending reform continued to pick up steam Wednesday as an Alabama House committee approved a proposal to reduce interest rates and limit the amount that payday borrowers can borrow each year. HB 297, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, now moves to the House.
The House Financial Services Committee weakened Garrett’s bill by adopting an amendment offered by Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Montgomery. Still, HB 297 may remain the best hope for payday lending reform in the House this year. (AL.com has more details on Wednesday’s committee debate on HB 297.)
HB 297, as amended, would cap annual interest rates on payday loans at 180 percent in Alabama. Current state law allows interest rates of up to 456 percent a year. Arise testified on Garrett’s original bill last week.
Garrett’s bill originally proposed lowering payday loan fees to $12.50 per $100 borrowed, a reduction from the $17.50 now permitted in Alabama. But Ingram’s amendment would set the fee at $15. Garrett’s bill also would have limited borrowers to six loans per year, or $2,500. The amendment would eliminate the limit on the number of loans per year, and raise the cap on annual borrowing to $4,000.
Those changes allowed the bill to earn the endorsement of state Banking Superintendent John Harrison, who spoke to the committee at length. Harrison’s support could prove important as the bill now awaits debate on the House floor.
“When you don’t have anybody happy, then you’re getting pretty close to getting something that is workable and that will absolutely protect those consumers, and that’s what we want to do,” Harrison told lawmakers.
The committee approved Ingram’s amendment after rejecting an amendment offered by Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham. That amendment would have converted payday loans into longer-term debt instruments. Robinson’s amendment was supported by Reps. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia; Mike Hill, R-Columbiana; and Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery.
Advocates were thankful to Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans, D-Birmingham, for calling for a roll call vote on each of the recorded votes on HB 297.
Senate expected to consider payday lending reform again next week
Payday loan reform is likely to be a topic again in the Alabama Senate once again next week. SB 91, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is expected to return to the Senate floor for debate. The bill cleared an important procedural hurdle last week, but the Senate delayed further debate on it.
SB 91 would reduce interest rates on payday loans and mirror many of Colorado’s 2010 reforms. Orr’s bill, which Arise supports, also would give borrowers at least six months to repay their payday loans, increasing affordability and reducing default risk. In addition, SB 91 would allow payday borrowers to pay down the principal in installments instead of the all-or-nothing, lump-sum payment now required.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted March 16, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Alabama Senate considers payday lending reform bill but doesn't vote on it
Payday lending reform got a debate but not a vote Thursday in the Alabama Senate. SB 91, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, cleared a procedural hurdle and received brief debate on the Senate floor, but lawmakers ultimately took no action on the measure. Still, the bill, which is supported by Arise and models Colorado’s payday loan laws, could return to the Senate floor next week.
Payday loans are short-term loans that carry annual interest rates of up to 456 percent a year in Alabama, often trapping borrowers in cycles of debt that can be hard to escape. SB 91 would reduce the interest rates and give borrowers at least six months to repay their loans, increasing affordability and reducing the default risk. The bill also would allow payday borrowers to pay down the principal in installments instead of the all-or-nothing, lump-sum payment now required.
The bill immediately came under heavy fire from several senators. Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, urged Orr simply to wait for the federal government to issue payday loan regulations. Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, also began to express concerns about the bill, but the Senate postponed further discussion of the bill after rejecting a proposed amendment by Orr.
Perhaps the most significant news from Thursday is that the Senate adopted a budget isolation resolution (BIR) on the bill. The BIR is a procedural vote required to debate any non-budgetary bill before the Legislature passes state budgets. That vote removed an obstacle from SB 91’s path and puts it in position for an up-or-down vote if the bill does return to the Senate floor.
Arise testifies in favor of House lending reform bills
House members may consider other lending proposals next week, representing alternative paths to reform. The House Financial Services Committee heard testimony this week on an auto title lending reform bill and two payday lending reform bills, though no votes were taken. Arise testified in favor of all three bills Wednesday, and the committee could vote on them next week.
Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, sponsors two of those bills. HB 342 is the House version of SB 91’s payday lending reforms, and HB 326 would cap interest rates at 36 percent a year on almost all title loans in Alabama.
The committee also could consider another plausible path to payday lending reform: HB 297, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville. The bill would reduce payday loan interest rates and extend repayment periods, though it would not allow installment payments.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted March 10, 2016.
Quick overviews of Arise's 2016 issue priorities
Your time is important, and your voice for a better Alabama is essential. That's why we've prepared these quick overviews to keep you up-to-date on what's happening at the Alabama Legislature on Arise's 2016 issue priorities. We'll update this post as needed.
"Ban the box" legislation: 'Ban the box' law would help rebuild lives in Alabama -- The "criminal history checkbox" on many standardized job application forms often keeps otherwise qualified employees from making it to the next stage of the hiring process, where they could explain their past face-to-face. This creates discouraging barriers to employment for people who are looking to rebuild their lives after serving their time and paying their debt to society. A growing national "ban the box" movement to remove those checkboxes from job applications is helping former inmates become productive members of society and provide for their families. It could do the same for thousands in Alabama. (The Senate Judiciary Committee on April 7 approved SB 327, which would "ban the box" on state job and license applications, but the Senate never voted on it.)
Death penalty reform: Death is different: Reforming Alabama's capital punishment system -- People accused of capital crimes deserve every possible safeguard to ensure the integrity of a conviction. This overview examines several bills that could lower the risks of errors and injustice and could bring Alabama law into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Health care: Medicaid RCOs: Better care, better health, lower costs -- Medicaid's promising new regional care organization (RCO) reforms are designed to keep patients healthier while cutting health care costs. Investing in preventive care now should pay off in fewer costly emergency room visits later. (The Legislature on April 5 overrode the governor's veto to pass a General Fund budget that would force deep Medicaid cuts. The House on April 28 passed HB 569, which would use BP oil spill settlement money to help free up $70 million to address Medicaid's $85 million funding shortfall in the 2017 budget. A Senate committee is set to consider the plan May 3.)
Housing: Home at last: The Alabama Housing Trust Fund -- Alabama has a shortage of almost 90,000 affordable and available homes for residents with extremely low incomes. State funding for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund (HTF), created in 2012, could reduce this shortfall and make dreams of home a reality for tens of thousands of families, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.
Payday lending reform: SB 91: A step in the right direction for Alabama borrowers -- Payday loans in Alabama carry astonishingly high interest rates: up to 456 percent a year. A Senate proposal would give payday borrowers a less expensive path out of debt by reducing the maximum interest rate and allowing borrowers to pay off their loan in installments over time. (The Senate passed the bill 28-1 on April 5. A House committee approved a different version of SB 91 on April 27, and the House is expected to debate it on May 3.)
State budgets: Alabama's education budget begins to rebuild, but General Fund struggles put Medicaid at risk -- The usual contrast between Alabama’s starving General Fund budget and its slightly healthier but still inadequate Education Trust Fund budget is exceptionally stark this year. As education finally climbs back toward its 2008 funding level after years of enormous cuts, the latest General Fund shortfall threatens devastating Medicaid cuts with effects that could ripple through the state's entire health care system. (The Legislature on April 5 overrode the governor's veto to pass a General Fund budget that would force deep Medicaid cuts. The House on April 28 passed HB 569, which would use BP oil spill settlement money to help free up $70 million to address Medicaid's $85 million funding shortfall in the 2017 budget. A Senate committee is set to consider the plan May 3.)
Tax reform: Cigarette tax for Medicaid: A win-win to improve health and fill Alabama's revenue gap -- The future of Alabama Medicaid is on the line as lawmakers confront yet another threadbare General Fund budget. Without significant new long-term revenue, Medicaid will continue to be at risk of cuts to vital services and doctor payments that could place the entire program -- and Alabama's entire health care system -- at risk. A cigarette tax of 75 cents per pack could provide long-term revenue needed to avoid those cuts, while also reducing health care costs and saving lives in Alabama.
Voting rights: A menu of options to improve voting rights in Alabama -- Our entire democratic system depends on how elections are structured and who can participate. When barriers exclude people from voting, they often lose faith in a system that doesn't seem to value their voice in our society's decision-making process. This overview examines several bills that would protect and expand voting rights, including proposals related to early voting, streamlined voter registration and voting rights restoration. (HB 268, a bill to clarify which crimes are "crimes of moral turpitude" that permanently disqualify offenders from voting in Alabama, passed the House on April 19 and won Senate committee approval on April 27. SB 186, which would expedite the state's voting rights restoration process, passed the Senate on April 19 and won House committee approval on April 20.)
Posted March 7, 2016. Last updated May 2, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Alabama's education budget begins to rebuild, but General Fund struggles put Medicaid at risk
The usual contrast between Alabama’s starving General Fund (GF) budget and its slightly healthier but still inadequate Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget is exceptionally stark this year. Nearly halfway through the Legislature’s 2016 regular session, both major state budgets have begun to move – in one case toward a predictable conclusion, and in the other with no settled end in sight.
State education support just now approaching return to 2008 level
The path forward looks easier for the ETF, which finally is beginning to recover from deep cuts during and after the Great Recession. The House ETF budget committee Wednesday approved an education budget that would bring K-12 funding nearly back to its 2008 peak. The committee’s budget includes a 4 percent teacher pay raise, a 3 percent increase for transportation, a 2.5 percent increase for universities, and a nearly 5 percent increase for two-year colleges.
Alabama’s K-12 cuts have been the nation’s second worst since 2008, and its higher education cuts have been the fourth worst. Even a return to 2008 funding levels would not be enough to account for the many needs that were still unmet then, especially in low-income rural schools.
The ETF has two primary sources of state revenue: income taxes (earmarked for teacher salaries) and sales taxes. Both are considered “growth taxes” because their revenues tend to increase during good economic times. As Alabama climbs slowly out of the recession, taxes that support the ETF are inching up. The Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) projects the ETF will have $187 million more in available revenue in 2017 than in 2016.
Proposed Medicaid cuts would be disastrous for Alabama’s health care system
The picture is much bleaker and more uncertain for Alabama’s non-education services like health care, child care and public safety. All of the “big four” state agencies – Medicaid, the Department of Human Resources (DHR), mental health and corrections – would receive essentially the same amount of GF money next year as this year under the budget that the Senate passed last week. But “level funding” at the 2016 level would follow years of steady declines and failure to keep up with ordinary cost growth. Mental health and DHR, in particular, would find it difficult to serve the children, seniors, and people with disabilities who depend on their services.
For Medicaid, level funding would be a disaster. It would end the regional care organization (RCO) reforms designed to keep patients healthier by emphasizing preventive care and reducing the number of costly emergency room visits. Failure to implement the RCOs could cost Alabama more than $700 million in new federal money set aside for the changes. Without significant new revenue, Medicaid will be unable to launch the RCOs or maintain many vital services for the most vulnerable patients.
Level funding for Medicaid also would eliminate coverage of outpatient dialysis, hospice, and adult eyeglass services, and would reduce payments to physicians, Medicaid commissioner Stephanie Azar said. Advocates fear that lower Medicaid physician payments would lead many doctors, especially pediatricians, to leave the program – or possibly to leave Alabama entirely.
With no new money available and no new revenue measures on the move, Senate GF budget committee chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, concentrated all GF reductions in one agency: Medicaid. Almost all other GF services would be level-funded under the plan. Public health, facing a tuberculosis outbreak and other potential infectious disease crises, is one of the rare services that, after years of cuts, would see an increase ($10 million, or 45 percent).
The GF has more than a dozen revenue sources, mostly small taxes that don’t grow with the economy. Nearly 8 percent of 2015 GF revenue was one-time money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund, which receives state revenues from oil and gas drilling. That money dried up for the 2016 budget year, fueling a funding crisis that took three legislative sessions to resolve.
The GF will have $95 million less available next year than it did in 2016, the LFO projects. Lost revenue includes the end of the borrowed money, lower oil and gas lease income, and lower interest on state deposits. Last year’s cigarette tax increase was not large enough to offset those revenue declines.
What lies ahead for Alabama’s 2017 budgets
Inadequate though they are, both budgets are moving forward in the Legislature. The GF budget passed the Senate last week. During the debate, Pittman said he would withdraw the budget if it returned to the Senate in the same form it passed. He predicted that “all-star” lobbyists representing health care providers would succeed in urging the House to find the revenue necessary to save Medicaid services while funding other vital functions like child protection, mental health and courts.
House action on both budgets is expected soon. The House could vote on the ETF budget as early as Tuesday. And House GF budget committee chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, plans to unveil a substitute GF budget for the committee’s consideration this Wednesday.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted March 4, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Bill to pause executions, create innocence commission clears Alabama Senate committee
Executions would stop in Alabama until at least June 2017 under a bill that the state Senate Judiciary Committee approved 10-0 Wednesday. The measure also would create a special commission to evaluate innocence claims in death penalty cases. (Read The Anniston Star’s coverage for more details.)
SB 237, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, would set up the Innocence Inquiry Commission under the state Administrative Office of Courts, and would place a moratorium on all executions until June 1, 2017, while the commission is established.
Arise policy analyst Stephen Stetson testified in favor of a commission, calling it a “recognition of human frailty” in the justice system. The Attorney General’s Office testified against the bill Wednesday, as did a member of Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL), a victims’ rights group.
The bill has bipartisan co-sponsorship from Sens. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile; Bill Hightower, R-Mobile; Del Marsh, R-Anniston; Greg Reed, R-Jasper; Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham; Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield; Ward, R-Alabaster; and Tom Whatley, R-Auburn.
Petitioners seeking relief from Alabama’s innocence commission would face an uphill battle, but the concept has gained traction in other Southern death penalty states. Texas created an innocence commission in 2015, while North Carolina’s was created in 2006. A commission would be particularly useful in Alabama, the only state in the nation without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 24, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Payday lending 'compromise' bill clears Alabama Senate committee
A bill that its sponsor describes as “a compromise” on payday loan reform emerged from an Alabama Senate committee Wednesday. SB 91, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is called “Colorado-style reform,” because it models changes to consumer lending laws approved by that state in 2010.
The bill now awaits a Senate vote. No other payday or auto title lending reform legislation has been introduced so far during the 2016 regular session.
SB 91 would cap payday loan interest rates in Alabama at about 180 percent a year. The payday loan industry has continued to exist in Colorado after that state’s reforms, but it was reduced in size. The number of defaults and bounced checks also have declined.
The bill cleared the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, with at least three senators voting against approval. Committee members opposing SB 91 were Sens. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison; Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville; and Tom Whatley, R-Auburn. Whatley moved to carry the bill over, which would have delayed a vote on it, but the committee rejected that motion. No public hearing was held on SB 91, but the measure sparked considerable discussion among committee members.
Orr repeatedly described his bill as “a middle ground” between consumer advocates and the payday loan industry. Arise, Alabama Appleseed and other consumer groups long have pushed for interest rates on payday loans to be capped at 36 percent a year in Alabama. (Current state law allows rates of up to 456 percent a year.) Payday lenders oppose any such change.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 17, 2016.
2016 legislative update: Same old song: Alabama faces another shortfall for vital services, but lawmakers aren't eager to raise revenue to prevent cuts
Groundhog Day, the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2016 regular session, left advocates for human services feeling a powerful sense of déjà vu. A mere five months ago, the Legislature managed, with small tax increases and large transfers from the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget, to pass a 2016 General Fund (GF) budget that barely maintained Medicaid, mental health care, corrections and other essential services.
It took lawmakers three tries to pass this year’s GF budget, and many advocates hoped the grueling experience would lead legislators to sober consideration of Alabama’s very real need for sustainable new revenue for the perenially cash-strapped GF. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case for many of them.
The Legislature began consideration of the 2017 budgets this week with no indication that it will seriously consider significant new revenue measures like closing income tax loopholes or raising the cigarette tax. Instead, key legislators told the media that they saw “no appetite” for tax increases, and said any further ETF transfers were “off the table.”
Those stances are in sharp contrast to the shortfalls and unmet needs for health care, public safety and other vital services in Alabama. In pre-session budget hearings, agency leaders asked the GF budget committees for an additional $235 million just to maintain current services. The GF has a structural deficit, with normal cost growth regularly outpacing the sluggish growth of its revenue sources.
Medicaid alone needs an additional $157 million to avoid cuts and complete the shift to a new regional care organization (RCO) model designed to save money and keep patients healthier, Commissioner Stephanie Azar told lawmakers last month. Medicaid provides health coverage for one in five Alabamians – mostly low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
Bentley’s plan: Move money from education to General Fund
Gov. Robert Bentley sent his proposed budgets to the Legislature on Feb. 3, as required by the state constitution. But unlike last year, he offered no recommendations for new revenue. Instead, Bentley proposed to move $181 million of use tax revenue from the education budget to the GF and to replace that money with a one-time transfer of money from the ETF Budget Stabilization Fund and the ETF Advancement and Technology Fund.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told AL.com this week that he would be “very surprised” to see lawmakers move ETF money to the GF again this year.
The Budget Stabilization Fund originally was created as a savings account to help the ETF avoid proration in years when revenues were low. The Advancement and Technology Fund was created just last year so schools would have money available for one-time expenses like buildings, buses and textbooks. Without a transfer, about $195 million will be available in these two accounts at the end of 2016, according to Legislative Fiscal Office estimates.
While use taxes would continue to bolster the GF in future years, the ETF revenue loss would only be replaced in 2017 if lawmakers pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville. SB 129 would spend 90 percent of the money in these two accounts in one year and leave the ETF without a source to replace lost revenues from the use tax (essentially a sales tax on out-of-state purchases) in future years.
Medicaid, public health would come up short in governor’s budget
Bentley’s budget is a starting point for the GF debate, but if history is any guide, it will not be the final product. With the help of the ETF transfer, Bentley’s proposed budget includes:
Bentley’s total proposed GF budget is only 5 percent larger than last year’s, even with the transfer from the ETF. This anemic growth would do little to make up for a 15 percent cut to the GF since 2008, and a nearly 20 percent ETF cut in that time. Alabama’s state K-12 cuts have been the nation’s second worst since the Great Recession, while its higher education cuts have been the fourth worst.
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 4, 2016.
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.