State Government

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’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.

2014 legislative update: Bills to shorten Alabama's death penalty appeals process speeding toward committee votes

House and Senate committees are set to vote Wednesday afternoon on proposals to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in Alabama. Members of both chambers’ Judiciary Committees gathered Tuesday to hear public testimony on the legislation – HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, and SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison – as well as other bills related to the criminal justice system.

Legislators heard from five speakers at the public hearing, which took place before a standing-room-only crowd. Many other speakers were hoping to be heard, but the committee adjourned after an hour because the House was going into session. Two speakers opposed HB 216 and SB 194, while three spoke in support. Two of the bills’ three proponents were family members of murder victims.

Before the public hearing began, the committees heard from Beau Brown, an attorney with the Alabama Office of Prosecution Services, which helped to draft the bills. Brown briefly explained each of the bills:

  • HB 216 and SB 194 would cause direct and collateral death penalty appeals to run concurrently, thus shortening the appeals process in capital cases. The legislation, labeled the “Fair Justice Act,” would accelerate the pace of post-conviction appeals known as Rule 32 appeals. Those appeals, which examine claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel, now occur after direct appeals that consider issues such as sufficiency of evidence. The bills also would require the state to provide lawyers for both sets of appeals if a defendant is too poor to afford a lawyer.
  • HB 217 would forbid a defendant’s attorney from contacting victims or their families without first giving the prosecutor a chance to ask the judge to forbid that contact. The bill would apply to all criminal cases, though Brown indicated he would be open to an amendment limiting the provisions to capital cases.
  • HB 218 and SB 193 would add additional types of murders to the list of those defined as capital offenses.
  • HB 219 would forbid contacting jurors in criminal cases without permission from the court. Gathering information from jurors is a technique that many defense attorneys use in determining whether there was any sort of improper behavior during trials. As with HB 217, Brown indicated he would be open to an amendment limiting those provisions to capital cases.

Greer sponsors the House bills, while Holtzclaw sponsors the Senate ones. Holtzclaw said he plans to introduce Senate bills that mirror the provisions of HB 217 and HB 219. The package of bills has the support of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

‘You can’t imagine what you go through’

Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair was dismissive of the idea that the proposals could lead to additional costs for the state. “Those costs all exist now,” he said. Adair told a lengthy and graphic story about a 1988 murder in Cordova. Greg Hunt, convicted of the crime, has been on death row since 1990. Adair described that situation as an unconscionable delay in justice.

Denise Gurganus, the sister of the victim in Hunt’s case, said she had insight on criminal justice policy that most people cannot share. “Until you have lost a loved one to a murder, you can’t imagine what you go through on a daily basis, and it does not stop,” she said.

Sherrie Carter, whose brother-in-law was killed in 1996, was emotional in comparing the amount of time it took to commit the crime to the amount of time the person convicted of killing him has spent on death row. Carter described the state’s lengthy capital appeals process as “just so the defendant can grasp at a thread to get out of what he did.”

‘The cost of this bill will be huge’

Birmingham criminal defense attorney Richard Jaffe said HB 216 and SB 194 could place a tremendous strain on Alabama’s budget and could carry severe unintended consequences.

“You know, 45 percent of our reversals in death cases come because of inadequate assistance of counsel at the trial level, and that’s because of inadequate funding,” Jaffe said. “You get a few thousand dollars to do something that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we’ve already got a shortage of trained attorneys. The cost of this bill will be huge and end up hurting crime victims in the long run because of the reversals of all of these cases.”

Criminal defense attorney Bill Clark, a former president of the Alabama State Bar, focused on the lack of research that had gone into the bills’ potential effects. Clark asked why the bills have not been evaluated by the Alabama Law Institute or the State Bar.

“We have criminal procedure committees that are designed to examine just this sort of thing,” Clark said. “I don’t understand the rush to pass a bill that is difficult to understand. The Bill of Rights was passed to protect citizens from the power of government, and these bills don’t do that.”

Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the fifth meeting day of the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 21, 2014.

2014 legislative update: ETF increase not enough to restore Alabama schools to pre-recession funding

Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but K-12 and higher education need a far larger increase to meet students’ needs adequately, lawmakers heard Tuesday during the second day of state budget hearings in Montgomery.

Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be $134 million, or 2.3 percent, higher next year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. But that amount is far less than the total $474 million in increases that K-12 and higher education officials have requested. It is also 18.7 percent less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Next year’s projected gains will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines.

Poverty, hunger remain challenges for K-12 schools, superintendent says

K-12 schools need $245 million, or 6 percent, more money next year, state school Superintendent Tommy Bice said. That increase would allow the state to hire an additional 450 middle school teachers to help reduce the dropout rate by keeping students engaged in school at a critical age, Bice said. The money also would help the state address other education needs, Bice said, by boosting support for:

  • School bus services, allowing systems to replace older buses and shorten routes that have some children getting on a bus before 6 a.m.;
  • A competitive grant program to allow schools in lower-income areas to offer music and other arts programs;
  • More teachers in expanding career and technical programs;
  • Family Resource Centers that serve the families of public schoolchildren;
  • Distance learning and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative;
  • An expansion of the successful Alabama Reading Initiative beyond the third grade; and
  • Libraries, technology, counselors, school nurses and continuing education for teachers.

Poverty remains the greatest barrier to education in Alabama, Bice said. “Education is the only way to end intergenerational poverty,” he said. Nearly every local school superintendent in the state attended in support of Bice’s presentation.

Child hunger is a major problem for Alabama’s schools, Bice said, and recent reductions in federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have made the problem even more serious. Nearly two-thirds of Alabama schoolchildren now qualify for free lunches, Bice said, a 4 percent increase in only one year. All but two school systems in the state provide breakfast, and more than four out of five children who eat breakfast at school qualify for free breakfasts, Bice said. The prevalence of hunger increasingly is leading schools to provide meals for children in the summer, as well as during the school year.

Alabama’s K-12 schools still are finding success despite chronic underfunding, Bice said. The state’s graduation rate has climbed to 80 percent for the first time ever, he said, an increase of 5 percentage points in one year. High schools also are expanding their collaborations with nearby community colleges, Bice said.

Pre-K, 2-year colleges, universities also request funding increases

Other presenters made the case Tuesday for more money for early childhood education and higher education in Alabama next year. Jenna Ross, director of the Office of School Readiness, asked for more support for the state’s highly touted pre-K programs. High-quality pre-K education closes the achievement gap for low-income students, Ross said. It also increases reading and math scores, decreases school absences, and reduces referrals to special education services, she said.

Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the state’s two-year college system, requested legislative support to expand a GED preparation program to help educate the 479,000 Alabama workers who do not have a high school degree or GED. Another priority for the system is to expand dual enrollment programs between high schools and community colleges, Heinrich said. He also urged an expansion of prison education programs, which he said have been shown to reduce recidivism rates significantly.

Lawmakers should try to restore universities to their 2008 state funding levels next year, said Robert Witt, chancellor of the University of Alabama System. Median tuition at the state’s public universities has increased sharply in recent years amid declining state funding.

The Legislature began the 2014 regular session Tuesday. Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the second meeting day of the session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 14, 2014.

2014 legislative update: More money available for education, less for General Fund services next year

Alabama will have more money available for education next year, but funding is expected to drop for the perennially cash-strapped General Fund (GF), the director of the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) said Monday during the first day of state budget hearings in Montgomery. The GF provides a sizable amount of state funding for Medicaid, mental health care, public safety and other non-education services.

It will not be possible for the Legislature to design budgets that make up the ground lost since 2008, the year before the Great Recession hammered state finances, LFO director Norris Green said. “We are out of the negative numbers but are in the low positives,” Green told lawmakers.

Costs go up, revenue stays flat: The General Fund story

Another new legislative session will bring another round of struggles for the GF budget, which helps fund Medicaid, courts, prisons and other public services. The GF will have $1.7 billion available for 2015, Green said. That amount is $83.3 million, or 4.7 percent, less than this year’s allocations. It also is nearly $287 million, or 14.4 percent, below pre-recession GF spending in 2008, adjusted for inflation.

Without significant new revenues, many services could face deep funding cuts. One-time money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement helped the GF stay afloat this year, but that money will not be available in 2015. A $145.8 million infusion from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) will help prevent further erosion of support for services funded under the GF next year. But additional borrowing from the ATF, which receives royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling in Alabama’s coastal waters, would require a constitutional amendment.

Green said he sees little hope for state employee raises next year, and Gov. Robert Bentley has said they are unlikely. Each 1 percent of salary increase for state employees would cost $17.5 million, the LFO estimates, with only $4.5 million of that amount coming from the GF. Almost all GF agencies get money from other sources, including the federal government, Green said.

Medicaid, other agencies: We need more money to meet current needs

Big questions once again concern how the state will address growing Medicaid costs. State Health Officer Don Williamson said Medicaid will end the current budget year on Sept. 30 without a deficit. “But we will end it flat broke,” Williamson said. Medicaid provides health coverage for about one in five Alabamians, many of them low-income children and seniors.

Medicaid needs $85 million, or 13.8 percent, more GF money next year to meet its expected needs, Williamson said. The agency already has cut reimbursements for dental services, dialysis and services from non-primary care doctors. Williamson said those cuts have raised real concerns about patients’ access to care.

Other services also need more GF money to fulfill their missions next year, agency directors told lawmakers Monday. Williamson requested an extra $10.5 million to help cover higher enrollment in ALL Kids, which insures children whose low- and middle-income families do not qualify for Medicaid. The Department of Mental Health has requested an additional $20 million – three-fourths of it from the GF – to make needed investments in community-based care.

Alabama’s overcrowded prison system asked for another $42 million next year to help fund a pay increase for corrections officers, Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said. State courts need an additional $26.5 million next year to help avoid dozens of layoffs and hire more juvenile probation officers, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said. Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, asked for more money to help expand adult day care and increase foster care payments.

Williamson noted that Medicaid enrollment has continued to increase despite the recent drop in Alabama’s unemployment rate. Buckner made a similar observation about enrollment for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Both speculated that the creation of low-wage jobs may be a factor in those trends.

ETF spending still down nearly a fifth since 2008

Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but the growth will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines. Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be capped at $5.9 billion next year under the Rolling Reserve Act. That amount is $134 million, or 2.3 percent, more than this year’s appropriations. It is less than the amount that K-12 and higher education officials requested, however. It is also $1.36 billion, or 18.7 percent, less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation.

The state is projected to bring in more than $6 billion in ETF revenues next year, Green said, with much of the money that exceeds the spending cap going to repay the ETF’s rainy day fund. Bentley has said he hopes to see teacher raises next year. The LFO estimates the cost of each 1 percent of salary increase for educators is between $34 million and $38 million, but debt repayment obligations may cut into the money available for raises, Green said.

K-12 and higher education leaders will elaborate on their funding needs Tuesday morning during the second day of state budget hearings. The Legislature officially will begin its 2014 regular session Tuesday at noon. State budgets will be a key issue during the session, which is expected to last until early April.

By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders and policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 13, 2014.

Commission to send watered-down constitutional revisions to Alabama Legislature

Due process rights and a judicially enforceable right to public education would not be included in the Alabama Constitution under the proposed new articles approved Thursday by the Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission. The commission did endorse adding equal protection language to the constitution, but explicitly declined to extend those safeguards to gay Alabamians. The state would have to maintain public schools, but lawsuits over that language would be forbidden.

The proposals would have to win lawmakers' approval and pass in a statewide vote next year before officially becoming part of the constitution. This legislative update recaps the commission's debate and decisions on these weighty issues.

Read ACPP policy analyst Stephen Stetson's legislative update here.

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