State Government

2014 legislative update: Anti-ACA bill clears Alabama Senate committee

A bill that purports to nullify parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) sailed through an Alabama Senate committee Wednesday with few questions. The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

SB 220’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he needed to pass the bill out of the committee Wednesday but said there would be a chance to make changes. “I have some changes myself,” Fielding said. “There will be opportunity for adjustments.”

The bill cites the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in seeking to refuse to enforce sections of the ACA that “exceed the authority of Congress.” The measure does not specify all the parts of the ACA that are believed to exceed that authority. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ACA’s constitutionality in 2012.

Depending on how state officials would interpret the broadly worded SB 220 if it became law, enforcement might halt Alabama’s compliance with numerous technical provisions of the ACA, including new Medicaid eligibility requirements, information system upgrades and interagency data sharing. Disrupting such activities could jeopardize current federal Medicaid funding, ACPP policy director Jim Carnes said.

SB 220 would authorize the attorney general to file lawsuits on behalf of certain individuals or businesses “being harmed by implementation” of the ACA. The measure also would prohibit Alabama or any of its cities or counties from establishing a health insurance exchange under the ACA.

In addition, the bill would forbid state agencies and employees from conducting “involuntary” home visits under certain maternal, infant and early childhood programs referenced in the ACA. The ACA already requires that all such visits be voluntary. If SB 220 bars all in-home visits under that section of the ACA, the Department of Children’s Affairs could lose $6.3 million a year in federal grants, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Committee member Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, asked whether the bill’s passage could void certain insurance contracts already in force. Fielding said he would welcome a floor amendment to address that concern.

Identical legislation – HB 147, sponsored by Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise – awaits action in the House Health Committee. The Legislature will return Thursday for the 16th 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 Feb. 19, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama Senate panel discusses plan to end state grocery tax, raise sales tax on other items

An Alabama Senate committee took no action Wednesday on a proposal to swap the state grocery tax for a higher sales tax on other items. The panel could vote next week on SB 287, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. Committee members heard public testimony on the bill Wednesday.

Dial’s bill would end the state’s 4 percent sales tax on groceries and increase the sales tax on other items by 1 percentage point to replace the lost education revenue. The bill would phase in the changes over four years and would not require a public vote.

By September 2017, the state sales tax on most consumer items would be 5 percent under the bill. Local sales taxes would be unaffected, but the combined state and local tax rate would rise to 11 percent in Birmingham and Montgomery. “It’s getting to be too big of a bite out of people’s wallets,” ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister told members of the Senate’s education budget committee.

SB 287 would negate many low-income Alabamians’ grocery tax savings by increasing the cost of everything else they buy, Forrister said. Items like clothes, toiletries and school supplies would be subject to a higher sales tax under the plan.

“We’re basically replacing one regressive tax with another regressive tax,” Forrister said. “The best way to approach a regressive tax is to balance it out with a progressive tax.”

Forrister commended Dial for drawing attention to Alabama’s status as one of only four states with no tax break on groceries. But a better way to replace the revenue from the grocery tax, Forrister said, is found in HB 130, sponsored by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery.

HB 130 would end the state grocery tax all at once and would repeal the state’s income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). Only two other states offer a full FIT deduction, and the top 3 percent of Alabama taxpayers received more than half of its savings in 2011. Because the deduction is written into the state constitution, HB 130 would require voter approval.

Dial said HB 130 faces legislative opposition, including his own, and will not pass this year. SB 287 stands a better chance of becoming law, he said. “This is the only option out there to remove sales tax for food,” Dial said. “I know you can argue that shoes and clothes and toothpaste are a necessity, but not as much as food.”

‘It’s not going to help folks at the lower end’

SB 287 would boost combined receipts to the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund by $28 million a year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office, but the bill would require the Legislature to re-examine its changes in 2018 to ensure they are revenue-neutral. Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association urged Dial to remove that provision to avoid forcing future lawmakers to slash ETF funding. “Let the 2018 Legislature deal with that issue when it comes,” Kennedy said.

Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said Dial’s bill was “selective” in raising the state sales tax on many everyday consumer items but not on more expensive purchases like cars. “It’s not going to help folks at the lower end,” Sanders said. “If they miss ’em in the washer, they’re gonna get ’em in the ringer.”

Alabama’s tax system requires low- and middle-income families, on average, to pay twice the share of their incomes in state and local taxes that the richest Alabamians pay, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Sales taxes are the biggest driver of that gap, because low-income families must devote more of their household budget to food, clothes and other necessities subject to those taxes.

The Legislature will return Thursday for the 16th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Feb. 19, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama Senate panel OKs bill to lift lifetime SNAP, TANF bans for people with felony drug conviction

An Alabama Senate committee Wednesday approved a bill that would allow people who were convicted of a drug-related felony to regain eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits. The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability (FR&A) Committee voted 5-2 to send the bill to the full Senate for consideration.

Alabama is one of just 10 states where people who were convicted of a drug felony face a lifetime eligibility ban under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Alabama is also one of only 12 states to apply a similar ban to benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The bans apply even to people with a lone offense decades ago.

SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, would allow otherwise eligible people to receive SNAP and TANF 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 any court-ordered drug treatment.

It was clear during the lively committee discussion of SB 303 that many people saw unfairness in a policy that denies eligibility only to those convicted of a felony drug crime. “A person that rapes, robs or kills can come out [of prison] and receive SNAP,” Coleman said. “This bill just levels the playing field.”

Another Senate committee last month approved a proposal – SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose – to require drug testing for TANF applicants who had drug convictions within the last five years. Several members of the Senate FR&A Committee asked whether Pittman’s bill would apply to newly eligible people under SB 303.

Both Coleman and a representative of the Department of Human Resources agreed that SB 63 would apply to TANF applicants, but they said federal law forbids drug testing as a condition of SNAP eligibility.

After a minor, uncontroversial amendment, the committee voted 5-2 for SB 303. Voting in favor were Sens. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman; Coleman; Del Marsh, R-Anniston; Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville; and Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City. Voting “no” were Sens. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, and Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville.

The Legislature will return Thursday for the 14th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 12, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Bill to allow some pharmacies to redispense HIV drugs goes to Alabama House

Pharmacies that dispense HIV medications for or in HIV clinics would be able to redistribute certain unopened drugs under a bill that the House Health Committee approved unanimously Wednesday. HB 138, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, now moves to the full House.

Current regulations prohibit HIV clinics from sending back medications, Todd said, even if patients do not show up for treatment. Clinic doctors say there are ample opportunities to use unclaimed, unopened drugs for other patients, but state regulations do not permit unauthorized redistribution of such drugs. Without the changes proposed in HB 138, pharmacies must continue to destroy those drugs.

Todd’s bill would allow pharmacies to redispense the medications to other patientsand would set strict control measures on handling and oversight of the drugs. State law already allows county jails and prisons to redispense unused prescription drugs and gives oncologists the authority to use unclaimed cancer drugs for other patients.

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. Advocates said the change would reduce waste and improve cost-effectiveness. Funding for most HIV medications comes from federal sources to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program at the state Department of Public Health.

The Legislature will return Thursday for the 14th 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 Feb. 12, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Payday, title loan reforms face uncertain future after Alabama House committee hearing

Payday and auto title lending reform bills were dealt a serious blow in an Alabama House committee Wednesday. Members of the House Financial Services Committee sent the payday loan bill to a subcommittee and deferred action on the title loan bill. The moves came after seven people testified in support of the payday loan bill during a public hearing.

The decisions were frustrating to advocates pushing the bills, both of which would cap annual interest rates on payday and title loans at 36 percent APR. State law now allows payday lenders to charge up to 456 percent APR, while title lenders can charge up to 300 percent APR.

HB 145, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, would cap the rate on payday loans and create a uniform statewide database of such loans to help ensure compliance with existing state law that allows borrowers to take out a total of no more than $500 of payday loans at one time.

HB 406, sponsored by Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, would cap the rate on auto title loans and require lenders who repossess and sell borrowers’ vehicles to return sales proceeds that exceed the amount owed and other reasonable expenses. More than half of the House’s members are co-sponsors of Scott’s bill.

The same House committee sent similar bills to a subcommittee last year. Those bills saw no further action.

Only one person testified against HB 145 on Wednesday. A payday loan store owner from Birmingham said his stores provided a needed service to borrowers who understood the risks. Seven other speakers braved inclement weather to testify in favor of the bill, but the panel was not persuaded to send the measure to the House floor for full debate.

Rep. Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery, did much of the talking during the hearing, wondering aloud about borrowers’ motivations to take out payday loans. He referred numerous times to the high cost of parking tickets and the unexpected expenses related to having a vehicle towed. He also emphasized that removing payday and title loans from Alabama would not eliminate all poverty.

The committee voted after the hearing to send Todd’s HB 145 to a subcommittee after a motion made by Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, and seconded by Rep. DuWayne Bridges, R-Valley. The panel took no action on Scott’s HB 406, the title lending reform bill. The bill could return for committee consideration as soon as next week, but that is not guaranteed.

The public hearing on HB 145 didn’t begin until 45 minutes into the meeting due to lengthy consideration of a handful of relatively non-controversial measures. Speakers were limited to three minutes each, and a time shortage meant a scheduled public hearing on HB 406 never happened.

The Legislature will return Thursday for the 14th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 12, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama Senate panel narrows scope of bill regarding public benefits recipients

A state Senate committee Wednesday drastically reduced the scope of a proposal that would have required most adults who receive a wide range of public benefits in Alabama to perform community service.

The committee approved a new version of SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, that simply would forbid the state from continuing to request waivers of federal work requirements for able-bodied, working-age adults who have no dependents and who receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The panel’s action came at Taylor’s request. The amended bill now moves to the full Senate.

Taylor’s original bill would have required most adult Alabamians who receive a host of public benefits – including SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), public housing and unemployment compensation – to perform 20 hours of community service each week to remain eligible. The original bill included no explicit exceptions for people who were employed or enrolled in school or job training.

Click here to read AL.com’s coverage of the committee action.

Click here to read ACPP’s analysis of the original bill.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Feb. 6, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Legislation would end Alabama Health Insurance Plan

An Alabama law that guarantees health insurance coverage for some people without regard to their health status is on the fast track to obsolescence in the Legislature.

Sponsors of identical House and Senate bills that would end the Alabama Health Insurance Plan (AHIP) say the program no longer will be needed because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires insurers to offer coverage regardless of a person’s health history.

HB 66, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, passed in the House last month and cleared a Senate committee Wednesday. The bill now awaits Senate approval. Meanwhile, a House committee Wednesday approved SB 123, sponsored by Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, putting the bill in line for a House floor vote.

The bills would reactivate AHIP if federal law ever again requires Alabama to offer so-called “guaranteed-issue” coverage. The measures would transfer any unobligated plan funds to the General Fund. They also could eliminate the need for the AHIP assessment on insurers, which raised $10.6 million last year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Before the ACA, insurers often refused to cover applicants with pre-existing conditions like cancer. 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).

State Insurance Department figures show that AHIP enrollment has dropped significantly since the ACA took effect, Clouse said. AHIP’s highest enrollment was 1,800 people, but the most recent count of the plan’s participants was 640, he said.

By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted Feb. 5, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Bill would erode tenants' rights in Alabama

Renting an apartment or a house can involve a lot of challenges, ranging from security deposits and fees to potentially cantankerous neighbors or landlords. But life for Alabama renters could get a lot more difficult if the Legislature passes SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

The bill is the second major attack on renter protections in Alabama in recent years, ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister said. The Legislature in 2011 passed provisions weakening renter protections in the landlord-tenant act.

“The 2006 landlord-tenant law clearly laid out a balanced set of protections for both sides of the rental relationship,” Forrister said. “Now, as if renters didn’t have a hard enough time, another bill would tilt the scales in favor of those who own rental properties and undermine important safeguards for renters.”

One of the most onerous parts of the bill for tenants could be the provision limiting their right to correct a problem cited by the landlord as a lease violation. In legal terms, this right is known as the right to “cure” the breach of the lease contract. For example, if a lease forbids a tenant from having a pet, the tenant could give the pet away and return to compliance with the lease terms. Under SB 291, a tenant would have no right to correct a problem unless the landlord gives express written consent.

The proposal also would shorten a set of deadlines governing the rental relationship. For example, current state law requires landlords to provide tenants with a 14-day written notice to terminate a lease for violations that do not involve failure to pay rent. SB 291 would shorten that notice period to seven days. If the tenant fails to pay rent, the law now requires landlords to give seven days’ notice before termination. SB 291 would reduce that time to a mere four days.

Another “zero tolerance” component of the plan is a provision that says any termination of electrical service to the property equals abandonment of the premises. If a tenant misses a payment to the power company and has service cut off even once, the bill would allow a landlord to declare the property officially abandoned, change the locks and put the renters’ possessions out on the street.

The bill adjusts other deadlines in favor of the landlord, too. For example, landlords now have 35 days to return security deposits to departing renters or provide notice of why they are keeping all or part of the deposit. SB 291 would allow landlords to hold onto a renter’s deposit for up to 60 days before returning it.

A coalition of organizations including ACPP and the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama is mobilizing to draw public attention to SB 291’s effects on low-income renters. But with powerful supporters backing the bill, advocates may have a tough fight on their hands.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 4, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Alabama Senate committees OK bills to impose tougher rules on TANF recipients

Alabama Senate committees this week considered legislation that would make getting public assistance far more complicated for low-income Alabamians. The bills, all but one of which won committee approval Wednesday, would impose additional requirements on people who receive benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Among the legislation are bills that would:

  • Require drug tests for certain TANF applicants convicted of drug-related crimes;
  • Impose community service requirements for recipients of many public benefits;
  • Limit what can be purchased with TANF benefits and the locations where debit-like Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards can be used; and
  • Require TANF applicants to apply for three jobs every week to remain eligible, as well as restoring the so-called “man-in-the-house” rule regarding cohabiting partners.

Committee approves bill to require drug testing of some TANF recipients

A Senate committee voted 6-1 Wednesday for a bill to require drug tests for certain TANF applicants. SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, would allow the Department of Human Resources (DHR) to order drug testing for a TANF applicant when there is “reasonable suspicion” of drug abuse.

The bill defines “reasonable suspicion” as a previous failed drug test or a conviction for using or distributing drugs within the last five years. Alabama law already imposes a lifetime TANF eligibility ban on people with felony drug convictions.

SB 63 is more narrowly tailored than previous testing proposals. The bill is limited to TANF recipients only, and it protects the benefits of the children in the family should an adult caretaker test positive for illegal drugs. The state would pay for initial drug tests under the plan.

Sens. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, and Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, both expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on recipients and DHR. Pittman acknowledged that the bill likelywould cost DHR “tens of thousands” of state dollars.

Despite these concerns, Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, commended Pittman’s approach of proposing a narrower drug test requirement than those attempted elsewhere.“Other states have tried this, and it hasn’t worked,” Taylor said.“Thank you for trying to get it right.”

No action on bill to require community service for recipients of many public benefits

A plan to require many recipients of public benefits to perform community service received a chilly reception in a Senate committee Wednesday. SB 87, sponsored by Taylor, would order most recipients of a wide variety of public benefits in Alabama to provide 20 hours a week of compulsory community service with a school or nonprofit organization to receive those benefits. The committee delayed a vote on the bill but could consider it again in the coming weeks.

SB 87’s definition of public benefits is linked to federal immigration law and includes most benefits that are based on the income of the individual receiving the assistance. That list includes TANF, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment compensation, public and Section 8 housing, and Pell Grants used to attend non-public schools.

Exact numbers are hard to determine, but the total number of Alabamians affected could exceed 1 million people. SB 87 includes no explicit exceptions for people who are elderly, employed, in school or job training, lack transportation to a community service work site, care for very young children, or care for someone who is disabled. The bill’s only exception is for people who have a physical or mental disability. People who fail to comply with this requirement would be ineligible for benefits for as long as a year.

SB 87 provides no funding to administer the community service programs or the extensive record-keeping that would be necessary. The bill also does not explain what would happen to recipients if enough community service positions could not be found.

Coleman asked about the capacity of DHR and the Alabama nonprofit community to meet the community service needs of so many people. “I am very concerned that for the last three or four years, we have been streamlining government, but now we are already adding a lot on to a streamlined staff at DHR,” she said. “And I understand that the final reporting is to the governor’s office. Can the governor’s office monitor this big a program?”

Taylor defended his proposal. “I think that it is worth the investment by DHR,” he said. “I think that it is disappointing that we have developed the mindset that community service is a punishment. We are doing this through the court system already [for people convicted of crimes]. The goal is to give [DHR] the flexibility, to give them the authority to design a program.”

Coleman raised concerns about screening community service workers to be placed in schools and nonprofits serving children, seniors and the disabled. “I supervised volunteers for the Red Cross, and I had to tell the judge there were some types I didn’t want,” she said. “It’s opening up a huge liability. The monitoring is hard. You don’t have control [over the volunteers].”

After the debate, Taylor asked the committee to carry over his bill to allow time for revisions. The members agreed.

Panel backs bills to limit use of TANF benefits, impose job search requirements

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored a pair of bills designed to tighten TANF eligibility and restrict how recipients can use the benefits. The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee approved both Wednesday.

SB 116 would bar the use of EBT cards in liquor stores and bars, casinos, tattoo parlors, and adult entertainment establishments. Orr said federal law requires states to put such prohibitions in place this year. It also would forbid using TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco and create penalties for recipients and merchants who make or accept TANF payments for prohibited purchases.

Orr also sponsored SB 115, which would require that the income and resources of a TANF applicant’s husband, wife or “cohabiting partner” be counted in determining eligibility, even if that person does not support the children and is not legally required to do so.(Actual money received from another person is already counted under TANF rules.)

That provision would restore the so-called “man-in-the-house” rule that often led welfare eligibility workers to visit recipients’ homes to check for the presence of a romantic partner. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 overturned the rule under the program that preceded TANF. Kansas is now the only state with this rule under TANF.

SB 115 would require someone signing up for TANF to apply for at least three jobs before being approved and continue to apply for three jobs per week to stay on TANF. The provision would apply even in rural communities with few employers. Under the bill, any TANF recipient who voluntarily quits a job or declines one without good cause would be barred from receiving future assistance for an indeterminate amount of time.

Orr pointed to Pennsylvania to support his bill. He said the state saw a 70 percent disapproval rate for TANF benefits after a similar law’s passage. “If they haven’t looked for a job yet, why should we reward them with TANF benefits?” Orr asked. “My presumption would be that a majority [in Pennsylvania] found jobs before they got benefits. That’s my speculation. I don’t know.”

Advocates for low-income people in Pennsylvania contend that complex rules, lack of transportation and child care, and bureaucratic delays were responsible for the decline in the state’s TANF rates. They say the state’s high denial rates have left many children and families in greater poverty.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 23, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Plan to shorten appeals process in Alabama death penalty cases clears House, Senate committees

The Alabama House and Senate soon could vote on a plan to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in the state. Judiciary Committee members in both the House and Senate approved the legislation Wednesday.

The House panel voted 9-6 for HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville. Earlier, the Senate committee voted 7-1 for SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison. The bills are identical.

Direct and collateral appeals would run concurrently in death penalty cases in Alabama under HB 216 and SB 194, labeled the “Fair Justice Act,” thus shortening the appeals process in capital cases. The bills also would require the state to provide lawyers for both sets of appeals if defendants are too poor to pay for their own representation.

The plan would accelerate the pace of post-conviction appeals known as Rule 32 appeals. Those collateral appeals, which examine claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel, now occur after the completion of direct appeals that consider issues such as sufficiency of evidence. Under the plan, defendants would have to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal.

‘We ought to be able to do better’

HB 216 and SB 194 prompted intense debate among lawmakers Wednesday over whether a faster appeals timetable could increase the chances that an innocent person might be put to death. Supporters of the bills said they would protect defendants’ rights while reducing long delays in carrying out executions.

“We’re looking at the average appeal process is 16 years and climbing,” Holtzclaw said. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that these people were convicted by a jury of their peers.”

Recent advances in DNA testing and other technology have reduced the likelihood that a person will wrongly end up on death row, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard told House committee members. Of the roughly 1,500 people sentenced to death nationwide since 2000, Broussard said, only four have been exonerated. “The notion that there are a lot of innocent people on death row, I take exception to that,” he said.

Broussard said appeals are still being heard in some Alabama capital cases that were prosecuted more than 15 years ago. He said that lengthy process is unfair to victims’ families, who sometimes have to wait decades before the person convicted of murdering their loved one is executed. “The system we have in place is being abused,” Broussard said. “We ought to be able to do better.”

‘Sometimes we do get it wrong’

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it would reduce the amount of time that a defendant’s lawyers have to unearth potential errors. “Sometimes we do get it wrong,” England said. “And sometimes this time has saved people.”

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, was among several lawmakers who urged members to take more time to study HB 216. Jones said he supports the death penalty but would like to know more about how average appeal times now would compare to those under the proposed system. “My concern is whether we’re moving too fast,” Jones said. “This is not a simple thing to read through and piece together.”

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said the issue was simple for her, because she opposes the death penalty entirely. “Thou shalt not kill, and two wrongs don’t make a right,” Figures said. Figures was the only Senate committee member to vote against SB 194 on Wednesday.

Alabama lawmakers should be careful to ensure fairness for low-income and marginalized people as they consider reforms of the death penalty system, Bishop David Foley told House committee members. Foley, bishop emeritus of the Birmingham Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, said innocent people are not the only ones who need extra time. People who are guilty of murder also need time to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, he said.

“In God’s eyes, life is sacred, not just for the innocent but for the guilty,” Foley said. “Only the cross of forgiveness and the final justice of God will truly bring the scales into balance.”

Two other death penalty bills approved; one delayed

Lawmakers signed off Wednesday on two other proposals related to the death penalty. Both House and Senate committees backed bills – HB 218, sponsored by Greer, and SB 193, sponsored by Holtzclaw – to add to the list of offenses defined as capital crimes. For example, the legislation would allow the state to seek the death penalty for any murder committed in a day care or on a school campus.

The House panel also voted 10-5 to approve a bill – HB 219, sponsored by Greer – that would require an attorney or a party in a death penalty case, or anyone acting on their behalf, to obtain a judge’s permission before contacting jurors after the case. Gathering information from jurors is a technique that many defense attorneys use in determining whether there was any improper behavior during trials.

Jones said judges already instruct jurors that they are not required to talk to attorneys after the case. Jones acknowledged concerns that some people might harass jurors or misrepresent themselves, but he suggested an amendment to the state’s jury tampering law would be a better way to address the matter.

The House committee delayed a vote on a bill that would prohibit capital defense attorneys from contacting a victim’s immediate family members before notifying the prosecutor. HB 217, sponsored by Greer, would allow the prosecutor either to agree to the request or ask the court to forbid the contact.

Committee members raised several concerns about the proposal. England said the bill could create appellate issues by limiting access to material witnesses and giving the prosecutor “an inherent advantage over the defense.” Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, said the measure needs a clearer definition of “immediate family member.” The committee postponed a vote on the bill but could reconsider it in coming weeks.

Lawmakers will return Thursday for the sixth day of 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 Jan. 22, 2014.

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