State Government

2014 legislative update: General Fund budget, changes to Alabama's landlord-tenant law enacted

Next year’s General Fund (GF) budget became law Thursday night when the Alabama House ended the 2014 regular session without considering Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed amendment to it. Bentley’s changes to the $1.8 billion GF budget were enacted automatically when the House adjourned. Check out AL.com’s report to learn more about Thursday’s action.

Bentley still must decide whether to sign the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget or veto it and order the Legislature to return for a special session. Bentley urged lawmakers to approve a 2 percent pay raise for K-12 teachers next year, but the ETF budget sent to him did not include a teacher raise or bonus. Click here to learn more about the ETF budget.

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 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. Bentley’s amendment changed the funding source for those bonuses but did not eliminate them. 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 GF budget.

Landlord-tenant law revisions, AHIP bill among other enacted legislation

Alabama landlords will have more time to refund a security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping some or all of it under a new law enacted last month. SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, will increase that window from 35 days to 60 days. The law also will allow landlords to treat a property as abandoned if electrical service is cut off for at least a week.

In addition, landlords will have to provide only a seven-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease for a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. That’s down from the previous 14-day timetable. SB 291 gives renters four chances every 12 months to correct problems cited as a lease violation without getting the landlord’s written consent. The measure passed 28-0 in the Senate and 98-0 in the House.

The Alabama Health Insurance Program (AHIP) will come to an end under another law enacted last month. SB 123, sponsored by Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, will transfer any remaining unused and unobligated program funds to the GF. Supporters said AHIP, which offers “guaranteed-issue” health coverage, is no longer needed because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires insurers to offer coverage regardless of a person’s health history. Blackwell’s bill passed 21-0 in the Senate and 90-0 in the House.

Before the ACA, applicants with pre-existing conditions like cancer often struggled to find coverage. Alabama created AHIP as a high-risk pool to cover certain residents who were turned down by other insurers after Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996.

By Chris Sanders, communications director, and M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted April 4, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama Legislature passes ETF budget, goes home without approving bills on payday lending, execution drug secrecy

Alabama lawmakers passed a $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget without a pay raise for K-12 teachers just before the 2014 regular session ended Thursday night. The House voted 54-45 to agree to the compromise budget that the Senate approved Tuesday. That leaves Gov. Robert Bentley, who urged the Legislature to approve a 2 percent raise for teachers next year, to decide whether to sign the ETF budget or veto it and order lawmakers to return for a special session. Check out AL.com’s report to learn more.

Many other proposals cleared one chamber but did not win final legislative approval before the regular session ended Thursday. Among the subjects of bills that lawmakers did not send to Bentley were:

  • Payday lending. HB 145 would have created a statewide database of payday loans. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, would have made it easier to enforce a current state law that prohibits borrowers from taking out more than $500 in payday loans at any one time.
  • Death penalty drug secrecy. HB 379 would have kept the identities of people involved in carrying out state-sanctioned executions confidential. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, also would have shielded the identities of companies that manufacture or supply death penalty drugs. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, sought to amend the bill to allow disclosure of such information under certain circumstances.
  • HIV drug redistribution. HB 138 would have allowed pharmacists at or affiliated with HIV clinics to redistribute unused HIV medications originally prescribed for other patients. The bill, sponsored by Todd, would have set controls on handling and oversight of the drugs.
  • Accountability Act changes. HB 558 would have made it easier for wealthy Alabamians to contribute more money to groups that grant scholarships to help parents of children in “failing” schools pay for private school tuition under the Alabama Accountability Act. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, would have removed the act’s $7,500 annual cap on the tax credit that individuals or married couples can claim for contributions to such organizations. The bill would not have changed current law allowing Alabama to provide a total of no more than $25 million of scholarship credits annually.
  • Lifetime SNAP and TANF bans. SB 303 would have ended Alabama’s policy of forever barring people convicted of a felony drug offense from regaining eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, would have allowed otherwise eligible people with a past felony drug conviction to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program if they have completed their sentence or are complying with their probation terms.

Much discussion, no Senate passage of payday loan database, execution drug secrecy bills

The payday loan database bill reached the Senate floor twice Thursday afternoon. Senators initially delayed action on HB 145 after Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, expressed concern about the security of borrowers’ information in the database. About an hour later, the Senate returned to the measure and added three amendments to it.

One amendment, offered by Sen. Shadrack McGill, R-Woodville, would have doubled the bill’s payday loan cap from $500 to $1,000. Two other amendments came from Sens. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville. Immediately after adopting the amendments, senators agreed to postpone action on HB 145, and the chamber did not take it up again before adjournment.

Senators debated the death penalty drug secrecy bill three separate times Thursday afternoon but ultimately did not vote on it. Ward tried to amend HB 379 to allow people injured while handling such drugs to sue, but the Senate did not accept that proposal. “No one in the state of Alabama should ever be granted absolute immunity for negligence or gross negligence they commit against somebody else,” Ward said while arguing for his amendment.

The failure to pass HB 379 could bring lethal injections to a halt in Alabama by making it impossible for the state to buy the drugs used in the process, Ward said. “By opposing this bill and killing this bill, what we’re doing is ensuring is this state will go back to the system of the electric chair,” he said. Alabama began using lethal injection in executions after the state retired “Yellow Mama,” the electric chair used from 1927 to 2002.

The three other bills listed above did not reach the House or Senate floor Thursday. The HIV drug redistribution bill, HB 138, passed 99-0 in the House last month and was on the Senate’s final special-order calendar Thursday, but senators adjourned with several measures still lined up ahead of it. Arise and other consumer advocates last year urged Bentley to support this policy change as his Medicaid Pharmacy Study Commission met to consider ways to reduce costs in the state’s Medicaid drug assistance programs.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted April 3, 2014.

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.

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.

2014 legislative update: Final shape of General Fund, education budgets unclear as plans advance in Alabama Legislature

Alabama’s prison system would get slightly less money next year under a General Fund (GF) budget that cleared the Senate’s GF budget committee 9-1 Wednesday. Even though the committee’s budget includes more prison funding than the House-passed version, total GF support for the Department of Corrections next year still would fall by about $2 million, or 0.5 percent. The full Senate could consider the budget as soon as Thursday.

The committee’s budget would provide $4.8 million more to the overcrowded Alabama prison system than the House version would. Of that amount, $3.5 million would be earmarked for a facility to house some inmates from the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka. For the last year, Tutwiler has been the subject of a federal investigation into reported sexual assaults of prisoners by corrections officers. The money would be spent to renovate an overflow facility for Tutwiler, which operates at more than twice its designed capacity.

Corrections also received an additional $1.3 million to improve security systems in male maximum-security prisons. In addition to the new women’s facility, the Senate committee approved $250,000 for a new ombudsman program for women prisoners who report mistreatment by corrections officers.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the Joint Legislative Prison Committee, praised the GF budget committee’s efforts to address the problems at Tutwiler but said more changes will be needed. “There is only so much we can rely on in the budget to fund prisons and to hope these problems will go away,” Ward said. “Until we get serious about overcrowding, we cannot build our way out of this problem. We cannot budget from crisis to crisis. Leadership will be needed in 2015 to support corrections.”

The Senate committee’s $1.8 billion GF budget is nearly $15 million larger than the House-passed version. The committee’s budget includes $4.5 million to provide a state employee bonus of $400 per state employee. HB 367, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, would provide that bonus, as well as a conditional cost-of-living increase for state employees if revenues become available.

The Department of Public Health would receive an extra $1.25 million for research of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders. The committee also boosted public health funding by $150,000 to establish a grant program for free health clinics across Alabama. The Department of Mental Health’s appropriation would increase by $1 million, of which about $23,000 would be earmarked to help improve autism services.

Medicaid funding would increase by 11.4 percent next year under the committee’s GF budget. That amount, unchanged from the House-passed budget, 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 that funding level by finding more ways to trim costs in the prescription drug program and other areas.

Tight education budget wins House approval by narrow margin

A deeply divided Alabama House voted 51-47 Tuesday for a $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that does not include Gov. Robert Bentley’s requested 2 percent teacher pay raise or the Senate-passed 1 percent teacher bonus. Instead, the House version would increase state funding for K-12 teachers’ health insurance, though not by as much as Bentley requested. The ETF budget, which the Senate passed last month, has gone to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions.

House members answered Bentley’s call to expand ETF support for early childhood education programs, giving the state’s pre-Kand Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) initiatives an additional $11.6 million. The K-12 Foundation Program, the largest source of state K-12 support, would receive $19.6 million more next year under the House version than from the Senate’s budget, for a total increase of $80.7 million, or 2.2 percent.

The House also responded to state school Superintendent Tommy Bice’s request for more money for buses and new middle school teachers. The House budget includes $8.7 million in additional transportation money and more funding to hire another 400 middle school teachers.

Two-year colleges and four-year universities would see slight ETF funding increases next year under the House’s budget. Lawmakers reversed a $10 million funding cut for Alabama State University (ASU) that cleared the Senate. The cut angered many members of the Legislative Black Caucus and encouraged many ASU students to come to the State House this month to support their school.

ETF support for the Department of Human Resources (DHR) would more than double next year to help offset a proposed cut to its GF support. The departments of Mental Health and Public Health would see little change to their ETF funding next year.

The House-passed budget alsohas a number of other line items for non-education programs, including a $2.6 million increase for the Department of Commerce, giving the agency a total appropriation from the education budget of $54.2 million. Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, criticized the Legislature for using education dollars for non-classroom purposes. “There are a lot of things in the budget that don’t focus on children, like the Veterans Affairs Department and the Department of Commerce,” Todd said. “I’d like the budget to be entirely about public education.”

State law places a spending cap, informally called the rolling reserve, on the amount that can be spent from the ETF in any given year. The House’s budget would exceed this cap by $24 million while budgeting $27.6 million 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 state’s ETF rainy day account.

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 Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted March 19, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Payday loan database wins Alabama Senate committee's approval

A statewide payday loan database moved one step closer to becoming a reality Tuesday when an Alabama Senate committee voted 6-0 for it. HB 145, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, now moves to the full Senate, which could vote on the plan later this week. The House voted 93-1 for the bill last week.

Committee chairman Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, described the bill as "non-controversial." Still, after a series of questions from Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, members of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee amended the bill to require that the database be competitively bid.

The amendment could slow the bill down if it wins Senate approval. HB 145 would have to return to the House because the language no longer would be identical to the version the House passed. The House either could accept the Senate's changes or send the bill to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions.

HB 145 would not reduce the annual interest rate that payday lenders can charge in Alabama from the current 456 percent APR. But a common database would make it possible to enforce a current state law that prohibits borrowers from taking out more than $500 in payday loans at any one time. Without a single statewide database, many borrowers can hop from storefront to storefront and take out $500 payday loans from each, racking up thousands of dollars of debt. The database would alert lenders when a borrower already had reached the $500 cap and prevent them from extending additional loans to that borrower.

The state Banking Department last year proposed regulations to create a common database, but some lenders sued to block the plan, claiming the department lacked the authority to do so. Todd's bill would require lenders to submit information annually to the department, which many advocates say would greatly improve available data about the industry.

Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the 26th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted March 18, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Education budget, landlord-tenant changes, HIV drug bill advance in Alabama Legislature

K-12 teachers in Alabama wouldn’t get a raise next year under the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that a House committee approved Wednesday. The House is expected to vote on the plan next week.

The committee’s $5.9 billion budget would restore $10 million of state funding for Alabama State University that the Senate had removed. It also would include slight increases for K-12 and higher education, though next year’s ETF funding still would not come close to pre-recession levels. Check out AL.com’s report for more details.

Landlord-tenant revisions move closer to becoming law

Bills that would adjust several parts of Alabama’s landlord-tenant law in property owners’ favor are on the move in the Legislature. Without debate, the House voted 98-0 Tuesday for HB 523, sponsored by Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville. A day later, a House committee approved SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Both proposals would give landlords more time to refund a security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping some or all of it. The bills would increase that window from 35 days to 60 days. The measures also would allow landlords to treat a property as abandoned if electrical service is cut off for at least a week. In addition, landlords would have to provide only a seven-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease for a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. That would be down from the current 14-day timetable.

The only difference between the bills involves renters’ right to correct problems cited as a lease violation without getting the landlord’s written consent. SB 291 would give renters four chances every 12 months to correct such problems, while HB 523 would provide only two chances every 12 months.

Senate panel OKs bill to allow redistribution of some unopened HIV drugs

Pharmacies that dispense HIV medications for or in HIV clinics could redistribute certain unopened drugs under a bill that the Senate Health Committee approved Wednesday. SB 437, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, moves to the Senate. A nearly identical House bill – HB 138, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham – passed the House 99-0 last week and awaits the Senate committee’s consideration.

HIV clinics now must destroy unopened medications if patients do not show up for treatment. HB 138 and SB 437 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 Tuesday for the 25th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 14, 2014.