The Alabama Legislature’s 2016 regular session, which ended Wednesday, was more notable in many ways for what didn’t happen than for what did.
Lawmakers did not agree on a revenue solution to prevent devastating Medicaid cuts that would reduce health care access for hundreds of thousands of children, seniors, and people with disabilities in Alabama. Despite enormous public support, payday lending reform didn’t cross the finish line in the House. State education funding still hasn’t returned to where it was in 2008. And proposals to expand affordable housing and reform Alabama’s death penalty system gained little traction at the State House.
Still, progress was real on several of Arise’s priority issues. With minutes left in the session, lawmakers passed a bill to expedite voting rights restoration for thousands of Alabamians. Payday lending reform made it further in the Legislature than it ever has before, with a reform bill sailing through the Senate 28-1. And the new #IamMedicaid campaign continues to remind lawmakers and the public of the real human faces behind Alabama’s Medicaid debate.
Here is a recap of what happened on each of Arise’s issue priorities this session – and the action that may yet lie ahead on them this year.
Deep Medicaid cuts in Alabama moved much closer to reality Tuesday when a bill that would have averted most of them died in a Senate committee. HB 569 would have used BP oil spill settlement money to help free up $70 million to go toward Medicaid’s $85 million shortfall, but the bill died when the Senate’s General Fund (GF) budget committee adjourned without voting on it. Committee chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, ended the meeting after his colleagues voted 9-6 to side with a proposed substitute by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. Orr’s plan would have reduced the amount of road money in the bill and distributed those funds to all areas of Alabama instead of just coastal areas. The substitute also would have increased the share of settlement money used for debt repayment, fully repaying the Alabama Trust Fund (which receives state revenue from oil and gas drilling) for money that the state borrowed to avoid massive GF cuts in recent years.
The Legislature may return later this year for a special session to address the Medicaid shortfall, but Gov. Robert Bentley said “everybody’s got to rest a little bit” before he makes that decision. Even though the regular session is over, lawmakers are expected to continue a series of weekly hearings on Medicaid’s funding structure and importance to the state’s health care system. Meanwhile, Alabama moves ever closer to a future when deep Medicaid payment cuts could prompt many pediatricians to leave the state and could imperil many of the rural hospitals and doctor’s offices upon which Medicaid patients and privately insured Alabamians alike depend. The cuts could end Medicaid coverage for outpatient dialysis and adult prescriptions and eyeglasses as well. Also on the chopping block could be the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) in Mobile, which saves the state money by allowing participating seniors to live independently in their own homes instead of being sent to a nursing home.
The Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget drew many fewer headlines than the GF this year, but state education funding is still about 15 percent below its pre-recession level of 2008, adjusted for inflation. (Even the 2008 funding level was insufficient to meet many of Alabama’s educational needs.) The 2017 ETF budget includes a 33 percent boost in pre-K funding and provides a 4 percent pay raise for most K-12 teachers. Universities and two-year colleges also received slight increases.
Payday lending reform
Alabama’s payday reform movement enjoyed an unprecedented breakthrough in the Legislature this year when a reform bill passed 28-1 in the Senate, but the plan came up just short of final passage. SB 91, sponsored by Orr, was on the House calendar Tuesday but never reached the floor for a vote after a long day of filibusters. Orr’s bill would have given Alabama payday borrowers a more realistic path out of debt by slashing interest rates, allowing installment payments and giving borrowers at least six months to repay. (Current state law allows payday loans to carry interest rates of up to 456 percent a year.) Arise will work with Alabama Appleseed and other advocates to build on this year’s momentum and growing public support as the reform movement continues into 2017.
Alabama will speed up the voting rights restoration process for thousands of people if Bentley signs a bill that the Legislature passed Wednesday. With just minutes left in the session, the House passed SB 186, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, and sent it to the governor. The clock struck midnight just before the Senate could consider another voting rights bill – HB 268, sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia – which would have clarified what counts as a “crime of moral turpitude” that bars someone from voting in Alabama. Other proposals to expand voting access, including multi-day voting and same-day voter registration, died in committee.
Death penalty reform
A bill to establish a state Innocence Inquiry Commission for death penalty cases – SB 237, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery – cleared the Senate this year but died Tuesday when the House Judiciary Committee didn’t vote on it. Other proposed reforms to Alabama’s death penalty system, including a three-year moratorium on executions, went nowhere. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered further review of Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme, which allows judges to override a jury’s sentencing recommendation. A state circuit judge in March declared Alabama’s judicial override system unconstitutional, but the state has appealed that ruling.
Alabama’s tax system will remain upside down for another year, as the Legislature declined to consider measures to end the state grocery tax or close corporate tax loopholes. A bill to increase the state property tax won Senate committee approval but went no further. A proposed 75-cent cigarette tax increase won the endorsement of the Alabama Health Care Improvement Task Force but was never introduced in the Legislature. Lawmakers did, however, enact new tax breaks for small businesses and for increased use of state port facilities. The Legislature also passed a bill – SB 208, sponsored by Orr – to require annual reports on whether tax incentives are producing their intended economic effects.
“Ban the box” legislation
SB 327, sponsored by Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, won Senate committee approval on April 7 but never reached the Senate floor. The bill would have removed the criminal history checkbox from state job and license applications, removing a potential barrier to employment for thousands of Alabamians looking to rebuild their lives and provide for their families after serving their time for a criminal offense.
Housing Trust Fund (HTF)
A bill to increase the state mortgage recording fee and distribute some of the revenue to the state HTF died in a House committee. HB 341, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, would have created a dedicated state funding source for the HTF, which could create thousands of jobs while addressing Alabama’s need for more than 90,000 affordable homes for residents with extremely low incomes.