Quick overviews of Arise’s 2016 issue priorities

Your time is important, and your voice for a better Alabama is essential. That’s why we’ve prepared these quick overviews to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening at the Alabama Legislature on Arise’s 2016 issue priorities. We’ll update this post as needed.

“Ban the box” legislation: ‘Ban the box’ law would help rebuild lives in Alabama — The “criminal history checkbox” on many standardized job application forms often keeps otherwise qualified employees from making it to the next stage of the hiring process, where they could explain their past face-to-face. This creates discouraging barriers to employment for people who are looking to rebuild their lives after serving their time and paying their debt to society. A growing national “ban the box” movement to remove those checkboxes from job applications is helping former inmates become productive members of society and provide for their families. It could do the same for thousands in Alabama. (The Senate Judiciary Committee on April 7 approved SB 327, which would “ban the box” on state job and license applications, but the Senate never voted on it.)

Death penalty reform: Death is different: Reforming Alabama’s capital punishment system — People accused of capital crimes deserve every possible safeguard to ensure the integrity of a conviction. This overview examines several bills that could lower the risks of errors and injustice and could bring Alabama law into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Health care: Medicaid RCOs: Better care, better health, lower costs — Medicaid’s promising new regional care organization (RCO) reforms are designed to keep patients healthier while cutting health care costs. Investing in preventive care now should pay off in fewer costly emergency room visits later. (The Legislature on April 5 overrode the governor’s veto to pass a General Fund budget that would force deep Medicaid cuts. Lawmakers may return later this year for a special session to address Medicaid’s funding shortfall.)

Housing: Home at last: The Alabama Housing Trust Fund — Alabama has a shortage of almost 90,000 affordable and available homes for residents with extremely low incomes. State funding for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund (HTF), created in 2012, could reduce this shortfall and make dreams of home a reality for tens of thousands of families, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.

Payday lending reform: SB 91: A step in the right direction for Alabama borrowers — Payday loans in Alabama carry astonishingly high interest rates: up to 456 percent a year. A Senate proposal would give payday borrowers a less expensive path out of debt by reducing the maximum interest rate and allowing borrowers to pay off their loan in installments over time. (The Senate passed the bill 28-1 on April 5. A House committee approved a different version of SB 91 on April 27, but the regular session ended without a House vote on either version.)

State budgets: Alabama’s education budget begins to rebuild, but General Fund struggles put Medicaid at risk — The usual contrast between Alabama’s starving General Fund budget and its slightly healthier but still inadequate Education Trust Fund budget is exceptionally stark this year. As education finally climbs back toward its 2008 funding level after years of enormous cuts, the latest General Fund shortfall threatens devastating Medicaid cuts with effects that could ripple through the state’s entire health care system. (The Legislature on April 5 overrode the governor’s veto to pass a General Fund budget that would force deep Medicaid cuts. Lawmakers may return later this year for a special session to address Medicaid’s funding shortfall.)

Tax reform: Cigarette tax for Medicaid: A win-win to improve health and fill Alabama’s revenue gap — The future of Alabama Medicaid is on the line as lawmakers confront yet another threadbare General Fund budget. Without significant new long-term revenue, Medicaid will continue to be at risk of cuts to vital services and doctor payments that could place the entire program — and Alabama’s entire health care system — at risk. A cigarette tax of 75 cents per pack could provide long-term revenue needed to avoid those cuts, while also reducing health care costs and saving lives in Alabama.

Voting rights: A menu of options to improve voting rights in Alabama — Our entire democratic system depends on how elections are structured and who can participate. When barriers exclude people from voting, they often lose faith in a system that doesn’t seem to value their voice in our society’s decision-making process. This overview examines several bills that would protect and expand voting rights, including proposals related to early voting, streamlined voter registration and voting rights restoration. (SB 186, which would expedite the state’s voting rights restoration process, has gone to Gov. Robert Bentley after passing the Senate on April 19 and the House on May 4. Different versions of HB 268, a bill to clarify which crimes are “crimes of moral turpitude” that permanently disqualify offenders from voting in Alabama, passed the House on April 19 and the Senate on May 3, but the plan died May 4 when the regular session ended before the House could vote on a proposed conference committee version.)

Posted March 7, 2016. Last updated May 5, 2016.

Una vivienda digna

Alabama’s Landlord-Tenant Law spells out what makes a rental dwelling livable and lists the basic rights and duties of both tenants and landlords.

This Spanish-language pamphlet outlines the major points covered by the law.

A Decent Place to Live

Alabama’s Landlord-Tenant Law spells out what makes a rental dwelling livable and lists the basic rights and duties of both tenants and landlords.

This pamphlet outlines the major points covered by the law.

Home at last: The Alabama Housing Trust Fund (2015 update)

A home is more than just somewhere to sleep at night. It’s a stable foundation from which people can work to build better lives for themselves and their families. It’s a place where people can put down roots and team with their neighbors to create and maintain a supportive, thriving community. It’s a sanctuary that gives children a better chance to succeed in school, confident that they won’t be uprooted before they can develop and sustain relationships with teachers and friends. A home, in short, is somewhere that allows people to feel that they belong.

Alabama has a shortage of almost 90,000 affordable and available homes for residents with extremely low incomes, but the Alabama Housing Trust Fund (HTF) could reduce this shortfall and make dreams of home a reality for tens of thousands of families, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities. This fact sheet examines how the HTF could improve lives and how the Legislature could develop a dedicated funding stream for those efforts.

The Alabama Tenants’ Handbook

More than 500,000 Alabama households live in rental housing. For a long time, there was no state law protecting the rights of renters. As of January 1, 2007, it’s a different story. We now have the Alabama Landlord-Tenant Law to help make sure every rental house and apartment is a decent place to live.

This handbook tells you what’s in the landlord-tenant law, along with some basic information for renters.

What went well in 2015 — and the challenges that remain for Alabama

It’s over! But it’s not over yet. After approving a wholly inadequate General Fund budget that would jeopardize our state’s future, the Alabama Legislature ended the 2015 regular session Thursday. But Gov. Robert Bentley vetoed that budget, and he will call lawmakers back for a special session on the budget later this summer.

Arise members celebrated some big victories this year, but major challenges still remain. Here’s a quick review of how Arise issues fared:

Budgets and taxes: None of Bentley’s revenue bills passed. Without new revenue, vital services like Medicaid and public safety face devastating cuts that would hurt Alabama’s quality of life for years to come. Just a few examples:

  • Thousands of Alabamians would lose community-based mental health care services.
  • Medicaid would end coverage of crucial services like outpatient dialysis and prosthetics.
  • State prisons would be even more overcrowded and at greater risk of federal takeover.

But there was some good news, too. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill to save money and give Alabamians more choices in Medicaid long-term care services. The state will have a powerful new tool – a “tax expenditure report” – to determine if tax breaks are worth the cost. And a new prison reform law will help save money and reduce overcrowding – but it only takes effect if the state funds it.

Ending Alabama’s lifetime SNAP ban: Alabamians can celebrate a big win for second chances! The prison reform bill includes language ending the state’s lifetime SNAP and TANF eligibility bans for people with a past felony drug conviction. Thousands of people can regain SNAP eligibility on Jan. 30, 2016, if the prison reform law gets the money required for it to take effect.

Alabama Accountability Act: The Legislature approved major changes to the act. The new version allows more money that would have supported public education to go to private schools instead – but it also includes some of Arise’s recommendations for greater accountability and transparency.

Housing Trust Fund: A bill to fund affordable housing in Alabama encountered powerful opposition and did not emerge from committee. Supporters plan to meet with opponents to seek agreement before the 2016 session.

Payday and title lending reform: In a big win for consumers, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled the state Banking Department can create a single statewide database of payday loans. But much work remains in the drive for a 36 percent interest rate cap: No bills to regulate payday or auto title loans passed, but public pressure for reform continues to grow.

The regular session is over, but Arise’s work continues. Stay tuned for updates as we prepare for this summer’s crucial debates over our state’s future. Together, we can build a better Alabama for all!

By Kimble Forrister, executive director. Posted June 4, 2015. Updated June 12, 2015.

General Fund budget, changes to Alabama’s landlord-tenant law enacted

Next year’s General Fund (GF) budget became law Thursday night when the Alabama House ended the 2014 regular session without considering Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed amendment to it. Bentley’s changes to the $1.8 billion GF budget were enacted automatically when the House adjourned. Check out AL.com’s report to learn more about Thursday’s action.

Bentley still must decide whether to sign the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget or veto it and order the Legislature to return for a special session. Bentley urged lawmakers to approve a 2 percent pay raise for K-12 teachers next year, but the ETF budget sent to him did not include a teacher raise or bonus. Click here to learn more about the ETF budget.

GF support for the Department of Corrections would fall by about $2 million, or 0.5 percent, next year under the budget, even though Alabama’s prison system is operating at nearly twice its designed capacity. The budget includes $3.5 million for an overflow facility to help house some inmates from the overcrowded Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka. The spending plan also includes $250,000 for a new ombudsman program for Tutwiler prisoners who report mistreatment.

State employees would receive a one-time $400 bonus next year under lawmakers’ GF budget. Bentley’s amendment changed the funding source for those bonuses but did not eliminate them. Medicaid funding would increase by 11.4 percent next year, though the amount would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said earlier this year that Medicaid could endure at the proposed funding level by cutting costs in the prescription drug program and other areas. Click here to learn more about the GF budget.

Landlord-tenant law revisions, AHIP bill among other enacted legislation

Alabama landlords will have more time to refund a security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping some or all of it under a new law enacted last month. SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, will increase that window from 35 days to 60 days. The law also will allow landlords to treat a property as abandoned if electrical service is cut off for at least a week.

In addition, landlords will 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’s down from the previous 14-day timetable. SB 291 gives renters four chances every 12 months to correct problems cited as a lease violation without getting the landlord’s written consent. The measure passed 28-0 in the Senate and 98-0 in the House.

The Alabama Health Insurance Program (AHIP) will come to an end under another law enacted last month. SB 123, sponsored by Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, will transfer any remaining unused and unobligated program funds to the GF. Supporters said AHIP, which offers “guaranteed-issue” health coverage, is no longer needed because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires insurers to offer coverage regardless of a person’s health history. Blackwell’s bill passed 21-0 in the Senate and 90-0 in the House.

Before the ACA, applicants with pre-existing conditions like cancer often struggled to find coverage. 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) in 1996.

By Chris Sanders, communications director, and M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted April 4, 2014.

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.

Dial grocery tax bill, landlord-tenant changes advance in Alabama Legislature

Many low-income Alabamians could pay more in sales taxes under a bill that cleared a state Senate committee Wednesday. The Senate’s education budget committee voted 6-2 to approve SB 287, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. The measure awaits consideration by the full Senate.

Dial’s bill gradually 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. By September 2017, the state sales tax on most consumer items would be 5 percent under the bill. That would drive the total state and local sales tax rate in Birmingham and Montgomery to 11 percent.

ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister testified against SB 287 last week, saying it would negate the grocery tax savings for many low-income Alabamians by increasing the cost of everything else they buy. “We’re basically replacing one regressive tax with another regressive tax,” Forrister told lawmakers.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, echoed Forrister’s concerns Wednesday. “Everybody knows sales taxes are regressive, and you’re putting it on the backs of people who can least afford it,” Figures said.

Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said he worried that Dial’s bill would increase taxes on low-income Alabamians who receive food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP recipients do not owe sales taxes on food bought using SNAP benefits, Sanders said, so they would not realize any tax savings on that portion of their grocery bill. But SB 287 would raise the sales taxes they pay on other purchases like clothes and school supplies, he said.

“These people who are at the very bottom and the worst off are going to end up paying sales tax on these other items,” Sanders said.

Landlord-tenant law changes OK’d in House committee

Some deadlines in Alabama’s landlord-tenant law would become more favorable to property owners under a bill that won House committee approval Wednesday. HB 523, sponsored by Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, awaits consideration by the full House.

Beckman’s bill is identical to a Senate proposal – SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston – that cleared a Senate committee last week. The measures would nearly double, from 35 days to 60 days, the time in which landlords must refund a departing tenant’s security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping all or part of the deposit.

The bills also would require landlords to give tenants a seven-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease over a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. Current law requires a 14-day written notice in such a circumstance.

The House and Senate likely will meet into Wednesday night and then return Thursday for the 19th 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 Feb. 26, 2014.

Proposed landlord-tenant law changes softened in Alabama Senate committee

A state Senate committee somewhat softened a set of proposed changes to Alabama’s landlord-tenant law Thursday. The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee approved a substitute version of SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. The bill now goes to the full Senate.

Marsh’s original bill would have rewritten numerous parts of the state’s 2006 landlord-tenant law in favor of property owners. The committee’s changes would substantially reduce the bill’s impact on the half-million Alabamians who rent their lodgings.

The two biggest changes involve giving renters a second chance to correct mistakes before landlords can seek to evict them. Marsh’s original proposal offered tenants no right to correct, or “cure,” problems cited as a lease violation unless the landlord gave express written consent. The committee substitute would ease this “zero tolerance” provision by giving renters two chances within a 12-month period to correct such problems.

Marsh’s original bill also said any termination of electrical service to the dwelling would constitute legal abandonment of the property and allow landlords to evict tenants. The committee version would require electrical service to be disconnected for a full week before the property could be considered abandoned.

Other parts of the bill remained unchanged, however, including several portions that would adjust deadlines in favor of landlords. For example, a landlord now has 35 days to refund a tenant’s security deposit or give notice of why they are keeping all or part of the deposit. SB 291 would nearly double that time to 60 days.

Current law requires landlords to provide tenants with a 14-day written notice if they plan to terminate the lease over a violation that does not involve failure to pay rent. SB 291 would halve that timeframe to seven days. Marsh’s original bill would have cut the notice period to terminate over failure to pay rent down to four days, but it would remain at the current seven days under the committee version.

HB 523, sponsored by Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, is an identical House bill that reflects the Senate committee’s changes. That measure awaits consideration in the House Commerce and Small Business Committee. Lawmakers will return Tuesday for the 17th 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. 21, 2014.