State Government

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.

2014 legislative update: Alabama House passes payday loan database bill

The Alabama House voted 93-1 Thursday for a bill to create a statewide common database of payday loans. HB 145, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, now goes to the Senate.

Todd’s bill would make it easier to enforce a current state law that prohibits borrowers from taking out more than $500 in payday loans at any one time. Without a common database, many borrowers can hop from storefront to storefront and take out multiple $500 payday loans, racking up thousands of dollars of debt.

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 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 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 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. Policy analyst Stephen Stetson contributed to this report. Posted March 13, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama House committee votes to lift individuals' scholarship credit cap under Accountability Act

An Alabama House committee Wednesday approved a bill to erase a size limit on the state income tax credit that an individual can claim for contributions to groups that grant scholarships under the Alabama Accountability Act. HB 558, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, moves to the House.

The Accountability Act, enacted last year, provides state income tax credits to help parents of children in “failing” schools pay for private school tuition or a transfer to a non-failing public school. The law also provides tax credits for contributions to scholarship programs to help those students’ parents cover remaining costs.

Fincher’s bill would remove the Accountability Act’s current $7,500 annual cap on the tax credit that individuals or married couples can claim for contributions to organizations that grant scholarships under the act. Alabama still could provide a total of no more than $25 million of scholarship credits annually. Individuals and corporations also still could claim credits only for contributions up to 50 percent of their state income tax liability.

Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association questioned Wednesday whether the state should pass a bill whose tax benefits would flow largely to Alabamians with extremely high incomes. Among those speaking in favor of the bill were Toby Roth, who represents an online education corporation, and Sharon Lewis, principal of the Oakwood Adventist Academy in Huntsville. Lewis said the Accountability Act has given children educational opportunities they otherwise would not have had.

Another portion of HB 558 would allow owners of S corporations and Subchapter K entities to claim tax credits for their share of the companies’ scholarship contributions. The bill also would revise the Accountability Act's definition of “failing” schools. Click here to read the Montgomery Advertiser’s report on the committee’s action for more details.

Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 24th 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 12, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama House could vote next week on bill to end lifetime SNAP, TANF bans for people with felony drug conviction

The Alabama House could vote as soon as Tuesday on a bill that would allow people convicted of a drug-related felony to regain eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits. A House committee Wednesday approved the bill, which the Senate passed last month. SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, awaits consideration by the full House.

SB 303 would allow people convicted of a drug-related felony to regain eligibility for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program if they successfully comply with their conditions of probation or parole and are otherwise eligible for assistance. 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. Alabama is also one of 12 states to apply a similar ban to TANF benefits. The bans apply even to people with a decades-old offense.

Other legislation affecting SNAP, TANF recipients also wins House committee approval

The House State Government Committee also approved a bill Wednesday to require drug testing for TANF applicants who had a drug conviction in the last five years. The Department of Human Resources (DHR) would pay for initial drug tests under SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, 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. As with SB 303, SB 63’s provisions would expire in three years unless reauthorized.

People would have to apply for at least three jobs before applying for TANF in Alabama under another bill that won committee approval Wednesday. SB 115, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was amended in the Senate at Alabama Arise’s suggestion to ensure that a TANF’s applicant’s cohabiting partner must have a legal obligation to support the applicant’s children before that partner’s income would count in determining TANF eligibility. SB 115 also would order recipients to comply with DHR’s requirements for job search preparation, education and other employment activities.

TANF recipients could not use EBT cards in bars, liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors and adult entertainment establishments under SB 116, which the committee endorsed Wednesday. SB 116, sponsored by Orr, also prohibits using TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco.

The House committee Wednesday also approved a new version of SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville. The substitute bill would prohibit DHR from seeking a statewide waiver to provide extended SNAP benefits to able-bodied, childless adults. However, the bill would allow DHR to continue to seek local waivers in counties with extremely high unemployment rates.

The new SB 87 would authorize DHR to seek a federal waiver to participate in a pilot program to develop and test employment and training programs for SNAP participants. It also would require the department to implement a work and training program for SNAP recipients.

SB 303 and the other proposals will be among the bills awaiting House consideration as the session winds to a close. Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 24th 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 12, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Bill to increase homestead exemption for debtors clears Alabama Senate committee

Alabamians could shield more of their home’s value from creditors under a bill that the Senate’s General Fund budget committee approved 7-0 Wednesday. SB 427, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, awaits consideration by the full Senate.

Ward's bill would allow individuals to protect up to $30,000 of their home's value from creditors. The exemption for married couples would be up to $60,000. Current Alabama law sets that homestead exemption at just $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for couples. Those amounts are among the weakest debtor protections in the nation and are so low as to prove virtually useless in shielding most homes from foreclosure in a debt collection case.

Most states have far higher exemptions. Some, including Florida and Texas, do not limit how much of a home's value can be protected from creditors. Ward's bill would update Alabama's exemptions for the first time in more than 30 years and give debtors a better chance to rebuild after a financial judgment is entered against them.

SB 427 also would allow debtors in bankruptcy cases to choose to exempt homesteads and personal property in accordance with federal bankruptcy law. The bill originally would have increased debtors' state exemptions for personal property as well, but the committee removed those provisions.

The new version also does not include a cost-of-living adjustment. That means the Legislature would have to raise the limit again in the future to prevent inflation from eroding the homestead protection's value. "I think it's something that this body should vote on, instead of some sort of artificial index number," Ward said.

Time is getting shorter for the bill to win Senate approval. Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 24th 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 12, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Changes to state landlord-tenant law approved in Alabama Senate

The Alabama Senate voted 28-0 Thursday for a bill that would adjust some deadlines in the state’s landlord-tenant law in favor of property owners. SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, goes to the House.

Current state law requires landlords to provide tenants with a 14-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease for a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. SB 291 would halve that timeframe to seven days. The notice period to terminate a lease for failure to pay rent would remain at the current seven days.

Landlords could treat a property as abandoned if electrical service is cut off for at least a week under SB 291. The bill also would give landlords 60 days to refund a tenant’s security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping some or all of it, nearly doubling the current 35-day window.

The original proposal would have offered tenants no right to correct, or “cure,” problems cited as a lease violation unless the landlord gave express written consent. A Senate committee last month amended that provision to give renters two chances every 12 months to correct such problems. The Senate increased that to four chances Thursday by adopting an amendment offered by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.

Names of execution drug suppliers would be confidential under House-approved bill

The names of companies that provide Alabama with the drugs it uses to perform lethal injections would remain confidential under a bill that the state House passed 77-19 Thursday. HB 379, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, goes to the Senate.

Greer’s bill also would shield the identity of anyone who participates in a state-sanctioned execution or performs any ancillary function related to one. Click here to read the Associated Press’ report on the House’s action.

Alabama House passes bill on redistribution of unused HIV drugs

Pharmacies that dispense HIV medications for or in HIV clinics could redistribute certain unopened drugs under a bill that the Alabama House passed 99-0 Wednesday. HB 138, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, goes to the Senate.

HIV clinics now must destroy unopened medications if patients do not show up for treatment. Todd’s bill would allow pharmacies to redispense the 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 23rd 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 7, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Arise members gather in Montgomery to support payday, title lending reforms

Nearly 100 Arise supporters gathered Thursday in Montgomery to urge reforms of payday and auto title lending in Alabama. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, spoke at an Arise news conference to encourage advocates to push for their respective reform bills.

“There is no one in this state who does not have a friend or know someone with a friend who has been affected by these products,” Scott said of title loans. “They should not be allowed at these rates.”

Scott’s HB 406 would cap annual interest rates on title loans at 36 percent APR, down from the current 300 percent APR. Orr’s SB 410 would give borrowers more time to repay payday loans, which now carry annual interest rates of 456 percent APR, by extending loan terms to four months. (Most payday loans in Alabama are now two-week loans in practice.)

Orr’s bill also would create a statewide common database of payday loans. That would make it easier to enforce a current state law that prohibits borrowers from taking out more than $500 in payday loans at any one time. The state Banking Department last year proposed regulations to create a common database, but lenders sued to block the plan, claiming the department lacked the authority to do so.

SB 410 won committee approval Wednesday and could reach the Senate floor next week. Orr said changes to Alabama’s payday lending law have a real chance to be enacted this year. “In politics, many times it’s an incremental gain,” Orr said. “This year is really looking like a year when you will have made progress.”

Arise state coordinator Kimble Forrister thanked Orr and Scott for pushing their bills and said efforts to reform payday and title lending are gaining momentum statewide. Forrister pointed to the growing number of Alabama cities that have imposed moratoriums on new business licenses for such lenders, including Jasper just this week. He also noted the large number of lawmakers who are co-sponsoring SB 410 and HB 406. Nearly half of the Senate co-sponsors Orr’s bill, and more than half of the House co-sponsors Scott’s bill.

Scott urged advocates to remain steadfast. “We have to stay encouraged, but we also have to expand,” he said. “Where we are now is because of everyone’s effort. ... No matter what happens, we’re not going to give up the effort to change these rates.”

Lawmakers will return Tuesday for the 23rd 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 7, 2014.

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