State Government

2018 legislative update: Bill to ease burden of cash bail on low-income Alabamians clears Senate committee

A bill that would significantly ease the financial burden on low-income Alabamians accused of municipal violations won unanimous Senate committee approval Wednesday. SB 31, sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, would be a major step forward on criminal justice debt reform, which Arise members chose as one of our 2018 issue priorities. The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 10-0 and awaits a Senate vote.

Under current state law, municipal judges can jail people for many minor violations and misdemeanors pending trial unless they can afford a bond, which may cost hundreds of dollars. When the judges impose bonds, they are not required to ask if defendants are financially able to pay the bond that would allow them to leave jail and go home.

SB 31 would help reduce crowding at municipal jails across Alabama by removing cash bail requirements for people accused of many violations and misdemeanors when those people have not shown a reason to believe that they are a risk to public safety or that they will not show up for court. The bill would not change bond requirements for crimes related to domestic violence or drunken driving.

Many Alabamians live paycheck to paycheck and do not have hundreds of dollars available to spend on a bail bond. This bill would help protect families’ financial well-being by allowing low-income workers not to risk losing their jobs because they cannot bond out of jail after being charged with a minor offense. The measure also would save money for cities, which no longer would have to pay to house and feed people accused of minor crimes until their trials.

By Dev Wakeley, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 10, 2018.

2018 legislative update: Medicaid work requirements, ALL Kids, prison mental health funding among top 2019 budget challenges in Alabama

Alabama Medicaid had good news for legislators last week, but it won’t last long. Lower-than-expected prescription drug costs will help Medicaid carry $53 million forward into 2019, meaning the agency will need less General Fund (GF) money next year than initially expected, Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar said during state GF budget hearings Thursday. But that still won’t solve Medicaid’s need for stable, adequate long-term support.

Medicaid funding is just one of many GF challenges for Arise and other advocates this year. In a move that would create new barriers to health care for many low-income households, Alabama may seek to increase copays and impose work requirements for some Medicaid patients. The future of federal funding for ALL Kids, which provides health coverage for more than 85,000 children across the state, remains uncertain. Alabama also faces a federal court order to invest more in mental health care and other health services in state prisons.

Those issues and many others stand against the backdrop of a GF that struggles with a long-term structural deficit. That means GF revenue growth is not strong enough to keep pace with ordinary cost growth for Medicaid, mental health care, corrections and other services.

But lawmakers may be able to get through this year without addressing those deeper budgetary problems. The GF will carry forward $129 million into next year, enough to cover most of the requested increases for Medicaid, mental health care and corrections if Congress provides full federal funding for ALL Kids over the next two years.

The Legislature will have to finalize budgets for both the GF and the Education Trust Fund during a fast-moving 2018 regular session, which began Tuesday and is expected to end in March.

Temporary ‘good news’ won’t solve long-term Medicaid funding woes

Medicaid provides health coverage for one in five Alabamians – most of whom are children, seniors, pregnant women, or people with disabilities. The federal government provides about 70 percent of Medicaid funding in Alabama. The rest comes from the GF (11 percent) and other state sources like provider taxes on hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies (19 percent).

Medicaid received $806 million from the GF last year, of which $105 million was one-time money from the state’s share of the BP oil spill settlement. Medicaid’s 2019 GF request is for $757 million. That would be 6 percent less than the agency’s total GF allocation last year, but 8 percent more than the amount that Medicaid received out of recurring GF revenues.

The end of Medicaid’s regional care organization (RCO) initiative in July 2017 also drew great legislative interest during the hearings. Azar discussed an “RCO pivot,” which will preserve several features of the RCO plan, with a broader scope and some structural changes. The basic idea of coordinating patient care to produce better health outcomes will continue to drive the reforms, Azar said. But new federal rules will allow Alabama to include more categories of patients in the new system.

Like the RCOs, the “pivot” plan will build on existing care management initiatives known as “health homes,” Azar said. Health homes seek to cut costs and keep patients healthier by using primary care doctors to coordinate enrollees’ health care. Alabama Medicaid has operated health homes since three regional pilot projects launched in 2010.

Arise is committed to ensuring strong consumer oversight and community engagement in whatever shape the new Medicaid reforms take. In a written proposal to Medicaid last fall, Arise emphasized that our statutory responsibility to provide consumer representatives for RCO advisory committees and governing boards gave Arise and our partners at the Disabilities Leadership Coalition of Alabama both a wealth of experiential learning over the last three years and a team of trained appointees eager to participate in the transition.

Azar reaffirmed her support for consumer involvement after the budget hearing, but advocates must keep up the pressure to ensure that principle becomes reality. To that end, Arise and our allies will provide comments on the draft Medicaid reform plan when it is unveiled in coming weeks.

Medicaid work requirement, copay proposals would hurt low-income Alabamians

Arise will seek to minimize the harm from proposals to increase Medicaid copays and impose work requirements on some Medicaid beneficiaries. Azar mentioned the possibility of increasing Medicaid copays but offered few details, other than noting that federal law would limit them to no more than 5 percent of a household’s annual income. She also said it remains unclear whether it would cost the state more to implement such a program than it would raise in return.

Azar’s discussion of work requirements was much more robust. Alabama soon will request a federal waiver to impose a work requirement for Medicaid beneficiaries in the “Parent and Other Caretaker Relative” category, Azar said. That group includes about 75,000 of the more than 1 million Alabamians with Medicaid coverage. Caretaker responsibilities, disabilities and other factors preclude many of them from working outside the home.

On an encouraging note, Azar highlighted the importance of an “exclusion list” of circumstances that would exempt many members of this group from the requirement. The scope of such a list will be a primary focus of Arise’s advocacy.

The White House has welcomed states to impose or increase work requirements and other “personal responsibility” measures for Medicaid patients, and Alabama is moving in that direction. For the vast majority of people served by Alabama Medicaid – children, seniors, and people with disabilities – the expectation of employment is not appropriate.

Most states requesting work requirements so far have expanded Medicaid to cover low-income adults without disabilities, which Alabama has not done, Azar pointed out to lawmakers Thursday. Research shows that Medicaid work requirements would limit access to the health care that many beneficiaries need to stay in the workforce while doing little to increase employment among low-income families.

ALL Kids’ future still in limbo as Congress drags feet on federal CHIP funding

Congress’ failure to provide long-term federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is another threat to affordable health care in Alabama. That inaction jeopardizes ALL Kids coverage for more than 85,000 Alabama children whose low- and moderate-income families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.

ALL Kids’ future has been uncertain since long-term federal CHIP funding expired on Sept. 30, 2017. As available funding dwindled, ALL Kids in December announced that the program would end Feb. 1 without additional money. Congress approved temporary CHIP funding in December, which forestalled that move. But if the uncertainty continues, ALL Kids officials said Thursday, they will mail letters this month announcing that the program will freeze enrollment in February and terminate in March.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states have been receiving an enhanced federal match for their CHIPs, which in Alabama amounted to 100 percent federal funding. It remains unclear how Congress will handle this funding formula in a long-term funding plan. The Department of Public Health has requested an extra $53.6 million from the GF next year in case Congress requires Alabama to resume providing state matching money for ALL Kids.

For Medicaid, the loss of CHIP funding would mean that an additional 87,000 children whose Medicaid coverage is paid for by ALL Kids – but cannot legally be terminated – will move to the Medicaid budget. That would increase the state’s cost to cover those children.

Alabama was the first state to win approval for its CHIP when Congress created the program in the late 1990s. It has played a huge role in reducing the state’s rate of uninsured children from 20 percent then to just 2.4 percent today. Arise and other advocates urge Congress to honor this historic commitment by moving forward with a five-year plan for full CHIP funding without further delay.

Federal lawsuit to force more state investment in mental health care in prisons

Mental health care in Alabama prisons is “horrendously inadequate,” a federal judge ruled last summer. That led to an order for the state to solve the chronic understaffing in its prison system, particularly among corrections officers and mental health professionals. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has requested an additional $80 million in GF support over the next two years to address those issues.

Staffing in Alabama’s prison system is at only half of its expected level, Dunn told lawmakers Thursday. In some facilities, that number is as low as 30 percent, he said. Sentencing reforms have helped reduce the state’s prison overcrowding from 190 percent of designed capacity to 160 percent in recent years, but Alabama still has the nation’s “highest overcrowding percentage,” Dunn said.

State education funding up but still lower than a decade ago

Alabama’s education funding will be up again next year, but it still will be well below its inflation-adjusted level from 2008, before the Great Recession. The Education Trust Fund (ETF) funding cap for 2019 will be $6.6 billion. That’s $216 million, or 3.4 percent, higher than this year’s allocations. The Rolling Reserve Act sets the cap annually based on a moving average of the previous 15 years of ETF revenues. Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed ETF and GF budgets include cost-of-living raises for both education employees and state employees.

By Jim Carnes, policy director, and Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Jan. 9, 2018.

Budgets for FY 2018 fall short of real need

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst

The Alabama Legislature last week passed 2018 state budgets that once again fall short of meeting critical needs. While lawmakers avoided a repeat of last year’s General Fund (GF) crisis, which required a special session to resolve, the new budgets highlight structural flaws that will continue to hinder public services in our state until leaders and voters approve fundamental tax reform.

Medicaid dodged a bullet this year in the GF. The barebones program that underpins our entire statewide health system squeezed by with so-called level funding – the same roughly $700 million in state funds as last year – plus the second and final $105 million installment of BP oil spill settlement funds. The lack of an increase deepens concerns about the scaled-back launch of regional care organizations (RCOs), already delayed to October 1. Level funding for other GF agencies such as Mental Health, Public Health and Corrections leaves them ill-prepared for contingencies like lawsuits and outbreaks of illness.

On the Education Trust Fund (ETF) side, the picture is only slightly better. The ETF passed by the Legislature on May 18 increased funding for K-12 education by $24 million, allowing for the hiring of about 150 new, and much-needed, teachers for grades 4-6. It also increased funding by $13.2 million for Alabama’s well-regarded, but not universally available, pre-kindergarten program.

Alabama is unusual among states in that we have two major state budgets. The Education Trust Fund (ETF) supports public schools, community colleges and universities, along with a handful of public/private entities like Tuskegee University. The ETF also funds some state agencies that provide education-related services. The General Fund budget (GF) funds the rest of state government.

Alabama is also unusual in the extent to which we “earmark” our taxes, designating the purposes for which certain taxes may be spent. Our constitution earmarks most “growth” taxes – those that increase when the economy is good – to the Education Trust Fund (ETF). Examples of growth taxes are income and sales taxes. Many taxes that don’t grow with the economy are earmarked to the GF and, as a result, the GF fails to grow as the economy and the need grows over time.

The consequences of Alabama’s flawed tax and budget system are clearly visible in the new budgets. Most glaring is the Legislature’s failure to fund the state’s Medicaid program adequately. For the past two years, infusions of $105 million from the BP oil spill settlement have helped prevent massive Medicaid cuts. But this two-year boost, agreed upon during last year’s General Fund negotiations, leaves the state facing a funding cliff for a program that insures more than one in five Alabamians – mostly children, seniors and people with disabilities.

The 2018 GF Medicaid allocation of $701.4 million is still $42.2 million short of the Governor’s already inadequate funding request. At this level, Medicaid will be able to keep providing basic services, but its ability to proceed with regional care organization (RCO) reforms that would emphasize preventive care may be at risk. Alabama would give up $747 million in promised federal funds if it fails to implement RCO reforms.

Of the other GF agencies, only trial courts and the badly stressed juvenile probation officers (JPO) program received small increases ($1.3 million for the courts and $1.8 million for JPOs). But in neither case did increased funding keep pace with the increased need.

In the ETF, higher education received a $4.6 million increase, but nearly every dollar of this went to Alabama’s National Guard scholarship program. Costs for this program have grown very rapidly over recent years, restricting the Legislature’s ability to provide increases for other purposes in higher education. The 2018 ETF also provided a $26.4 million increase to Veterans Affairs for scholarships for disabled veterans, their spouses and their children. Responding to concerns about the rapidly rising costs of these scholarship programs, the Legislature passed SB315 by Senator Gerald Dial (R-Lineville), tightening scholarship eligibility and benefits. Community colleges, which provide much of the workforce development in the state, were essentially level funded, as was the Department of Commerce’s workforce development program.

The Department of Mental Health received $3.5 million more from ETF than in 2017, but this was much less than the $10.5 needed to settle the anticipated lawsuit over mental health services for low-income children. For the first time, the stretched-thin juvenile probation officers program received a small ETF appropriation of $750,000 for truancy enforcement services.

A third way in which Alabama’s budget is unusual is that the ETF’s Rolling Reserve statute has imposed an artificial cap that restricts how much can be appropriated to education, even if additional revenue is available. Funds available above that cap can be given to K-12 schools and universities for one-time infrastructure and technology expenditures. SB307 by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), passed on May 19, makes $15 million available to universities from the Education Technology fund and $41.3 million for K-12 for technology, buses and other infrastructure needs.

Avoiding an emergency special session to fill a budget gap is a very low bar for legislative success. Even worse is Alabama’s habit of defining “level funding” as “same dollar amount.” A better practice is to calculate a “current services budget” that keeps up with inflation and population growth. Only a bold move on tax reform can stop the steady deterioration caused by inadequate budgets year after year.

2017 legislative update: Public transportation bill clears Alabama House committee

Arise's new approach to public transportation funding picked up momentum Wednesday as the House Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure Committee approved HB 454, sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills. The bill would create the Alabama Public Transportation Trust Fund as a repository for future state appropriations to expand public transit options in the state. The bill now awaits consideration by the full House.

Under HB 454, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) would administer the trust fund, including making and auditing project awards. The bill would require ADECA to adopt trust fund rules, conduct a public transportation needs assessment and make annual reports.
 
An amendment defines the composition of the trust fund’s advisory committee. The committee, which would include individuals recommended by Alabama Arise and other advocacy organizations, is designed to ensure that projects supported by the trust fund address the needs of rural areas, seniors, and people with disabilities.
 
Alabama is one of only five states that provide no state funding for public transportation. Every year, Alabama leaves millions of dollars in matching federal transportation funds on the table because we can’t put up the state portion. Arise considers HB 454 a sensible first step toward expanding public transportation options in Alabama.
 
By Jim Carnes, policy director. Posted April 19, 2017.

2017 legislative update: 'Ban the box' bill clears first hurdle, wins Alabama Senate committee approval

Alabama lawmakers took a first step Wednesday toward enacting a policy that would make it easier for people to re-enter the workforce after serving their time for a criminal offense. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 for SB 200, which would create a “ban the box” policy for many state and local government jobs. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, goes to the Senate.

Ross’ bill would remove the criminal history checkbox from applications for many jobs with state and local governments in Alabama. SB 200 would include exceptions for certain public jobs, including ones where federal or state law deems certain convictions to be automatic bars to employment. The bill also would not apply to private employers.

SB 200 would not require state or local government employers to hire any particular person, and it would not forbid them to ask about an applicant’s conviction history. Instead, the bill would delay that inquiry until after an applicant has received a conditional job offer.

“Ban the box” advocates say such policies give applicants a fairer chance to be considered on their merits rather than being instantly eliminated from the applicant pool. “Increasing employment opportunities for people with records will reduce recidivism and improve economic stability in our communities,” Section 1 of SB 200 states.

Alabama would be far from alone in adopting a “ban the box” policy for public jobs. Twenty-six states have some form of “ban the box” or “fair chance” policy as of April 2017, according to the National Employment Law Project. That list includes Southern states like Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. Many private employers – including Home Depot, Target and Walmart – have “banned the box” on their initial job applications as well.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted April 12, 2017.

2017 legislative update: A victory for justice: Legislature votes to end judicial override in Alabama

UPDATE: Gov. Kay Ivey signed SB 16 into law on April 11, 2017, ending judicial override in all future capital cases in Alabama.

The age of judicial override in the United States is about to come to an end. The Alabama House voted 78-19 Tuesday to end the practice, which allows judges to override juries’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. Alabama is the last state in the country to allow judicial override in capital cases.

SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley for his consideration. Bentley is “looking forward to signing this bill,” he said in a statement. The state Senate already passed the bill 30-1 in February.

“Judicial override is about to become a thing of the past, and Alabama’s justice system will be better as a result,” Arise Citizens’ Policy Project executive director Kimble Forrister said. “It’s time for our state to put the sentencing decisions in death penalty cases where they belong: in the jury’s hands. We’re happy to see such strong support in the House and Senate for ending this outdated practice, and we hope the governor will sign it into law quickly.”

Judicial override regularly has been used to impose death sentences in Alabama despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Alabama judges used judicial override 112 times between 1978 and early 2016, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. In 101 (or 90.2 percent) of those instances, override was used to impose a death sentence despite a jury’s recommendation of life without parole. (Read Arise’s fact sheet to learn more about judicial override.)

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, the House sponsor of legislation to end judicial override, said the decision of whether to sentence someone convicted of a capital crime to death was a weighty moral question that should be entrusted to a jury of one’s peers rather than a judge. “A law degree does not make you more qualified to decide whether to sentence someone to life or death,” England said.

The House vote came after England agreed to amendments that made his judicial override bill (HB 32) match Brewbaker’s version. England then substituted SB 16 for his own bill, allowing the House to vote on the measure and send it directly to Bentley.

SB 16 explicitly states that it would not apply retroactively to defendants sentenced to death before the bill’s passage. It also would preserve current Alabama law allowing juries to recommend death if 10 of 12 jurors agree. England’s original bill would have required a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty, but he accepted the changes to win support for ending judicial override.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted April 4, 2017.

2017 legislative update: Budgets that would do little to boost investments in education, health care advance in Alabama Legislature

Running in place was the emerging theme this week as Alabama lawmakers advanced state budgets that would provide little additional money for education, Medicaid, mental health care and other essential services. Both the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) budgets await further action when the Legislature returns from spring break on April 4.

The House voted 72-28 Tuesday to pass a GF budget that would lean heavily on one-time money to prevent deep cuts to Medicaid, mental health care, corrections and other vital services. The next day, the Senate’s education budget committee approved an ETF budget that would provide essentially flat funding for K-12 and universities. The Senate debated the budget Thursday, adopting several changes, but postponed a final vote on it until April. However, senators did pass a plan Thursday to allow the construction of several new men’s prisons in Alabama.

Federal health care changes could send state Medicaid, ALL Kids costs soaring

As in past years, Medicaid funding is a major concern for both legislators and advocates in the GF debate. A one-time infusion of $105 million from the state’s BP oil spill settlement will help prevent massive Medicaid cuts in both 2017 and 2018, but it is not a long-term funding solution for the program that insures more than one in five Alabamians – mostly children, seniors, and people with disabilities.

The House budget would allocate $701.4 million from the GF to Medicaid, $42.2 million short of Bentley’s request. The agency could keep providing basic services at that funding level but would have to “evaluate” its ability to proceed with regional care organization (RCO) reforms that would emphasize preventive care, Medicaid spokeswoman Robin Rawls told the Montgomery Advertiser last week. Alabama would give up $747 million in promised federal funds if it fails to complete RCO reforms by October 2017.

The House’s $1.84 billion GF budget would set aside $97 million as a buffer against potential major changes to federal health care programs like Medicaid and ALL Kids, but that still might not be enough to avoid a special session later this year. U.S. House leaders have proposed a per capita (or per-person) cap on federal Medicaid funding, which accounts for about 70 percent of Alabama Medicaid’s support. That change could force coverage cuts and leave the state on the hook for cost increases in the event of a sudden disease outbreak.

The future of ALL Kids is another major question mark. Congress must reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which supports ALL Kids in Alabama, by Sept. 30. The state didn’t have to put up any of its own money in 2016 or 2017 to support the ALL Kids program, which insures children whose low- and moderate-income families don’t qualify for Medicaid. But if Congress reverts to an earlier CHIP formula, Alabama once again would have to pay a share of ALL Kids’ cost. Medicaid and the Department of Public Health would need an additional $91 million to meet such a requirement.

Most state agencies would receive flat funding under the House budget, making it increasingly difficult for Alabama to meet changing needs in the face of growing costs and population increases. The Department of Public Health, for example, asked for a $4.6 million increase (not including ALL Kids funding) to help boost preparations for potential widespread epidemics like the Zika virus, or more localized epidemics like last years tuberculosis epidemic in Perry County. But the House’s 2018 GF budget would provide public health with exactly the same amount it received in 2017.

Other level-funded services would include mental health care, corrections and the Department of Human Resources, which oversees crucial services like child protection, child care and food assistance. Collectively, these three agencies had asked for an additional $125.8 million for 2018. The House budget also would not give state employees a raise, a point of deep contention throughout Tuesday’s debate.

Regular shortfalls for services like Medicaid, mental health care and child care are a common refrain. The GF relies on a hodgepodge of revenue sources, most of which grow slowly even in good economic times. That leaves the GF with a structural deficit, meaning revenue growth is not strong enough to keep pace with ordinary cost growth. Read The Alabama Tax & Budget Handbook for more on how this deficit came to be and how Alabama can end it.

Increases for pre-K, juvenile probation officers in otherwise relatively flat education budget

As with the GF, funding increases in Alabama’s education budget next year would be the exception, not the rule. The Senate’s education budget committee Wednesday approved a $6.42 billion ETF budget that would boost state education support by only 1.4 percent next year. The K-12 Foundation Program would see a $14.5 million increase, allowing schools to hire about 150 new teachers in grades 4-6. Operating budgets for two-year colleges and universities would receive flat funding.

The ETF’s small increase would not be spread evenly across all educational services. K-12 schools would receive just 0.36 percent more. But debt service, primarily for university construction projects, would increase by more than $10 million – a 42 percent jump in one year. State-funded college scholarships for many Alabama veterans and their families are projected to cost $26.5 million more in 2018 than in 2017 – a 40 percent increase. SB 315, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, would tighten eligibility requirements for those scholarships in an effort to reduce the state’s future obligations.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, was one of several senators concerned about growing debt service costs because, she said, it was not immediately clear which projects had incurred those debts. “I’m sure none of us pay bills at home when we don’t know what they are,” Figures said.

Pre-K and juvenile probation officers are two major services that would receive more ETF money. Pre-K, which enjoys broad bipartisan support at the Legislature, would get an extra $15 million, a 23 percent increase. The state also would boost funding for juvenile probation officers by 19 percent, providing an additional $1.25 million from the ETF and an extra $500,000 from the GF.

Pared-down prison construction plan clears Alabama Senate

The budgets themselves weren’t the only major budgetary news at the Legislature this week. The Senate passed a major milestone in its two-year prison construction debate when it voted 23-11 Thursday for a plan that would fund construction of up to three new men’s prisons. The bill now awaits House action.

SB 302, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would allow local jurisdictions, such as counties or regional associations of counties, to bid to build prisons. Successful bidders would be allowed to issue bonds to build two or three prisons to Department of Corrections (DOC) specifications and then lease the prisons back to the DOC for 30 years. The state would gain ownership of the prisons at the end of the lease period. The state would close all but three existing men’s prisons, leaving six total.

The bill would allow the state to borrow up to $325 million to build one new prison and renovate others, including Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, but only if localities agreed to build at least two new prisons. Those numbers are down sharply from Ward’s original plan, which would have let Alabama borrow $800 million to build four new prisons.

Ward estimated that the additional prison space would allow Alabama to reduce the population of each prison to less than 150 percent of capacity and reduce DOC operating and personnel costs. That would free up funds for lease payments to local governments, he said.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, argued strongly during floor debate that the state needed to build a new women’s prison, as Ward’s original plan would have. “There are only 800 women in Tutwiler, and they’re not rioting or attacking guards,” she said, accusing the Legislature of ignoring the needs of incarcerated women. “The foundation is crumbling. Water is leaking. There is nowhere to sit other than your bed.”

Ward agreed that Tutwiler needed replacement or major renovations. But he said the cost savings from closing it wouldn’t be enough to pay the lease on a new prison.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also has criticized Ward’s bill, saying it would not solve problems with staffing, overcrowding and mental health care access in Alabama prisons. The bill is not a wholesale solution to the state’s corrections issues but is a step in the right direction, Ward told AL.com.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst, and Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 16, 2017.

2017 legislative update: End of judicial override draws closer as Alabama House committee approves Senate bill

The era of judicial override in Alabama death penalty cases came one step closer to an end Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would end the unusual practice. SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, now awaits consideration by the full House. The Senate passed the bill 30-1 last month.

Wednesday’s vote was the second time that the House committee approved a measure to end Alabama’s practice of allowing judges to override juries’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. The committee voted 10-2 last month to approve a similar House bill: HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa.

Alabama is the only state in the country that allows judicial override in capital cases. The practice regularly is used to impose death sentences despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Read Arise’s fact sheet to learn more about judicial override.)

Alabama judges used judicial override 112 times between 1978 and early 2016, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. In 101 (or 90.2 percent) of those instances, override was used to impose a death sentence despite a jury’s recommendation of life without parole.

The House and Senate bills are largely identical, with two major exceptions. Brewbaker’s bill explicitly states that it would not apply retroactively to defendants sentenced to death before the bills passage. It also would preserve current Alabama law allowing juries to recommend death if 10 of 12 jurors agree. England’s bill would require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty.

England said Wednesday that he is willing to accept the changes in the Senate version. His ultimate goal with the legislation, he said, is to end judicial override.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted March 8, 2017.

2017 legislative update: Momentum to end judicial override in Alabama grows as bills clear committees in House, Senate

The movement to end judicial override in Alabama has won two big victories in the first two weeks of the Legislature’s 2017 regular session. The House Judiciary Committee voted 10-2 Wednesday to approve a bill to end Alabama’s practice of allowing judges to override juries’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-3 last week to advance a similar bill.

The bills – HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road – now await consideration by the full House and Senate.

Alabama is the only state in the country that allows judicial override in capital cases. The practice regularly is used to impose death sentences despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Alabama judges used judicial override 112 times between 1978 and early 2016, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. In 101 (or 90.2 percent) of those instances, override was used to impose a death sentence despite a jury’s recommendation of life without parole.

Bills differ on whether to require unanimity

The House and Senate bills are largely identical, with one major exception: England’s bill also would require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty. Current Alabama law allows juries to recommend death if 10 of 12 jurors agree. House committee members Wednesday rejected an attempt to remove that provision from England’s bill.

Arise policy analyst Stephen Stetson testified last week in favor of ending judicial override and requiring unanimity for juries to impose a death sentence. “Members of a jury can reach the best result,” Stetson told senators.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Feb. 15, 2017.

2017 legislative update: Kicking the can: Windfall temporarily cushions shortfalls for Medicaid, other General Fund services in Alabama

The state budget hearings that ended Tuesday made one thing clear: There’s still no long-term answer to Alabama’s budget woes. The state once again likely will use one-time money next year to delay hard decisions about how to provide sustainable funding for vital services like Medicaid, child care and mental health care. And even though funding for K-12 and higher education will grow slightly in 2018, Alabama still hasn’t restored education support to where it was before the Great Recession.

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, who chairs the Senate’s General Fund (GF) budget committee, said Alabama isn’t collecting enough money to support essential services in the long term. “We’re going to need more revenue if we’re going to live up to the responsibilities of our state,” Pittman said.

One-time money shields Medicaid from massive cuts – for now

GF revenues will be essentially flat in 2018, despite the growing costs of services like Medicaid and corrections, according to Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) projections. The GF, which supports non-education services in Alabama, will have $1.94 billion available next year, LFO Deputy Director Kirk Fulford said. That’s about $4 million less than this year’s funding level.

Alabama’s funding problems would be much larger if Medicaid weren’t receiving a one-time infusion of $105 million in BP oil spill settlement money in 2018. With that money unavailable for 2019, the state’s budget picture will be bleak without significant new revenue to support health care and other services.

GF revenue may not have grown, but the costs of the services it supports have. GF agencies asked for nearly $140 million more than they received in 2017, Fulford said.

The largest request was from Medicaid, which asked for an additional $63.5 million (for a total of $869 million) from the GF to maintain current services and move forward with regional care organization (RCO) reforms designed to save money and keep patients healthier by focusing on preventive care. Alabama’s return on those state dollars is significant: Medicaid insures more than 1 million Alabamians – mostly children, seniors, and people with disabilities – and nearly 70 percent of its funding comes from the federal government.

Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar warned lawmakers that if enough money isn’t available to complete RCO reforms by October 2017, the federal government will withdraw the Medicaid waiver that allows the changes to move forward. That would end the RCO reforms and cost Alabama nearly $750 million in promised federal funds.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed $1.924 billion GF budget would provide $23 million more for Medicaid and level funding for most other services. Bentley also has requested $19 million to give state employees a 4 percent cost of living increase.

ALL Kids’ uncertain fate could force special session; DHR, courts, ALEA all request more funding

The future of ALL Kids is another major question mark for the GF. Congress must reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which supports ALL Kids in Alabama, by Sept. 30. The state didn’t have to put up any of its own money in 2016 or 2017 to support the ALL Kids program, which insures children whose low- and moderate-income families don’t qualify for Medicaid. But if Congress reverts to an earlier CHIP formula, Alabama once again would have to pay a share of ALL Kids’ cost. Medicaid and the Department of Public Health would need an additional $91 million to meet such a requirement, Fulford said. That could force the Legislature to return for a special session later this year.

Unmet GF needs extend far beyond health care. The state court system requested $106 million, a $9 million increase, citing a $3 million shortfall for juvenile probation officers and a $1.2 million shortfall for trial courts. Without the increase, the state would have to lay off juvenile probation officers, acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart said. Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, raised serious concerns that such layoffs could lead to more juveniles falling into the adult corrections system.

The Department of Human Resources (DHR), which oversees crucial services like child protection, child care and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sought an additional $15.7 million, according to the LFO. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), which oversees state troopers, requested an extra $37.4 million in GF money to continue current services, while the Department of Corrections asked for another $13.8 million. Bentley’s proposal to issue $800 million in bonds to build four new “mega-prisons” is likely to be a contentious topic at the Legislature this year.

‘We’ve got to start doing a better job of doing our job’

Many legislators expressed concerns about the Department of Mental Health, noting that it is at risk of federal court intervention. Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, made a passionate case for the state to invest more in community-based mental health care. “We’ve got to start doing a better job of doing our job,” Knight said.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said the state’s lack of investment in mental health care means many Alabamians who need treatment end up in the corrections system instead. Coleman-Madison emphasized that prisons cannot be treated as a substitute for mental health care. “Locking people up is not the answer,” she said. “We’re better than this.”

Regular shortfalls for services like Medicaid, mental health care and child care are a common refrain: The GF relies on a hodgepodge of revenue sources, most of which grow slowly even in good economic times. That leaves the GF with a structural deficit, meaning revenue growth is not strong enough to keep pace with ordinary cost growth. Read The Alabama Tax & Budget Handbook for more on how this deficit came to be and how Alabama can end it.

State Finance Director Clinton Carter pointed to declining revenue from Alabama’s oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico as one of the causes for stagnant GF revenue. Since 2006, royalties from these leases, which flow into the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF), have dropped by more than $325 million. Because interest from the ATF helps support the GF, declining ATF revenues mean less money for GF services.

Carter did highlight some good news for the GF, though. Two years ago, the Legislature allowed “remote sellers” (online sellers that don’t have a physical presence in Alabama) to collect state and local sales taxes voluntarily on sales to Alabamians in exchange for keeping a small share of the revenue. The GF has received more than $50 million from these collections since 2016, Carter said.

But Carter said all the new revenue that has come into the GF since 2010 has gone to only two agencies: Medicaid and corrections. If those agencies are excluded from the calculation, funding for the remaining GF agencies has been essentially flat over this period.

Bentley seeks pre-K boost in slow-growing education budget

The funding picture is slightly better for the Education Trust Fund (ETF), which receives most of its support from sales taxes and income taxes that increase as the economy grows. Pre-K programs are a high priority in Bentley’s proposed ETF budget, which includes a $20 million (or 30 percent) increase for them. Bentley would direct $4.4 billion to K-12 education, $1.6 billion for higher education and $366.8 million for other expenses (such as rehabilitation services for children) supported by the ETF.

Nearly $6.42 billion will be available to fund education next year, Fulford said. That’s about $90 million (or 1.4 percent) more than was available in 2017. Challenges to the education budget include higher health insurance and retirement costs, Fulford said, as well as an open-ended commitment to cover higher education costs for spouses and children of deceased or disabled Alabama veterans.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst, and Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Feb. 9, 2017.

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