Medicaid expansion, end to grocery tax highlight Alabama Arise’s 2019 priorities

Medicaid expansion and legislation to end the state sales tax on groceries are among the top goals on Alabama Arise’s 2019 legislative agenda. More than 200 Arise members picked the organization’s issue priorities at its annual meeting Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Montgomery. The seven issues chosen were:

  • Tax reform, including untaxing groceries and closing corporate income tax loopholes.
  • Adequate funding for vital services like education, health care and child care, including approval of new tax revenue to protect and expand Medicaid.
  • State funding for the newly created Public Transportation Trust Fund.
  • Consumer protections to limit high-interest payday loans and auto title loans in Alabama.
  • Legislation to establish automatic universal voter registration in Alabama.
  • Reforms to Alabama’s criminal justice debt policies, including changes related to cash bail and civil asset forfeiture.
  • Reforms to Alabama’s death penalty system, including a moratorium on executions.

“Public policy barriers block the path to real opportunity and justice for far too many Alabamians,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “We’re excited to unveil our 2019 blueprint to build a more just, inclusive state and make it easier for all families to make ends meet.”

Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid to cover adults with low wages has trapped about 300,000 people in a coverage gap, making too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to receive subsidies for Marketplace coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Expanding Medicaid would save hundreds of lives, create thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars a year into Alabama’s economy. Expansion also would help keep rural hospitals and clinics open across the state.

The state grocery tax is another harmful policy choice that works against Alabamians’ efforts to get ahead. Alabama is one of only three states with no sales tax break on groceries. (Mississippi and South Dakota are the others.) The grocery tax essentially acts as a tax on survival, adding hundreds of dollars a year to the cost of a basic necessity of life. The tax also is a key driver of Alabama’s upside-down tax system, which on average forces families with low and moderate incomes to pay twice as much of what they make in state and local taxes as the richest Alabamians do.

Health security for Alabama’s working families

Hundreds of thousands of uninsured Alabamians would qualify for Medicaid if Alabama expanded eligibility to adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. (That’s about $15,000 a year for individuals and $31,000 a year for a family of four.) Many hard-working Alabamians have no health coverage because they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford private health insurance. This fact sheet examines what’s at stake for Alabama in deciding whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The State of Working Alabama 2014: Health coverage in Alabama: Where we’ve succeeded and where there’s work to do

Alabama has enjoyed great success in recent decades in ensuring that children and seniors have the health protection they need, according to a new Arise Citizens’ Policy Project report issued Tuesday as part of The State of Working Alabama 2014. But the state lags behind the nation when it comes to insuring young adults, nearly 30 percent of whom lack health coverage.

“Child care, construction and food service are essential jobs that are often low-paying, and the people who do that important work deserve the protection of health insurance,” ACPP policy director Jim Carnes said. “The Marketplace makes affordable coverage available for tens of thousands of Alabamians. Closing the coverage gap would insure hundreds of thousands more. It’s time for our state to take this important step toward a healthier, more secure Alabama for all.”

Legacies of recession, chronic shortfalls linger in Alabama’s budgets

State support for education and other public services under the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) next year would not come close to its pre-recession level under the budgets that advanced in the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday. Both budgets are built on the assumption that the state will see no major revenue increases next year.

One-time teacher bonus, Alabama State funding cut in Senate committee’s ETF budget

Alabama would allocate $113.9 million, or 1.9 percent, less from the ETF next year under the $5.9 billion budget that won approval Wednesday in the Senate’s ETF budget committee. (By contrast, K-12 and higher education officials had requested $474 million more support next year.) If the budget becomes law, ETF funding in 2015 would be 18.5 percent less than it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation. The full Senate could consider the plan as soon as Thursday.

K-12 teachers would receive a one-time 1 percent bonus next year under the committee’s budget. Gov. Robert Bentley had recommended a 2 percent pay raise, but committee chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said he isn’t sure revenues will grow enough to sustain that pay increase. “You can’t spend optimism,” Pittman said. The committee rejected an attempt by Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, to provide a 6 percent teacher raise.

K-12 schools and two-year colleges would receive slightly more ETF money next year under the committee’s budget, while universities would receive slightly less. The budget would include money to hire more middle school teachers and increase support for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). Funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative would be flat.

Alabama State University (ASU) would lose about one-fourth, or $10.8 million, of its ETF support next year under the budget, accounting for almost the entire overall funding cut to universities. The budget would include $10 million for ASU as a “first-priority conditional,” meaning Bentley could release the money to the university if ETF revenue collections exceed budgeted spending next year.

Flat funding abounds for General Fund services

The House voted 80-20 Wednesday night to approve a GF budget that would be about the same size it was last year and is little different than the one that cleared a House committee last week. The $1.8 billion budget now goes to the Senate.

Medicaid, prisons, mental health care and other public services could struggle to maintain current services at the funding levels in the House’s GF budget. Overall GF support for those and other non-education services would be 8.3 percent lower next year than it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation, despite higher costs and population growth since then.

The House budget would cut GF support for Alabama’s prison system, which operates at nearly twice its designed capacity. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the House’s GF budget committee, said last week that he wants to work with House and Senate leaders to find more money for corrections.

Medicaid would see an 11.4 percent GF increase, though that amount still would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said Medicaid could survive next year at the House’s proposed funding level by looking for more ways to trim costs in the prescription drug program and other areas.

Mental health services would receive the same amount of GF money next year, despite the increased demand for community-based mental health services following the closure of several state mental health hospitals. State courts, which have cut hundreds of jobs in recent years, would receive far less GF funding than they requested.

ALL Kids, which insures Alabama children whose low- and middle-income families do not qualify for Medicaid, would receive 28.3 percent more from the GF to help cover higher enrollment. A $13.9 million ETF boost for the Department of Human Resources (DHR) would help the agency offset an $11.8 million GF reduction. DHR provides child welfare, child support collection and elder abuse services. The agency also administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in Alabama.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said lawmakers have missed several opportunities to ease the burden on state budgets in recent years. Instead, England said, the Legislature has declined to increase the state cigarette tax, reform the state’s criminal sentencing system, or expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.

The GF draws its revenues from a variety of sources that do not grow quickly enough to keep pace with cost increases. That leaves the budget with a structural deficit, meaning it often is strapped for cash even when the economy is doing well.

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said lawmakers eventually must solve Alabama’s perennial GF shortfalls. “At some point, we’re going to have to figure out how to say, ‘We’re going to do better,’” Knight said. “We can’t take care of the basic things we’re supposed to do.”

Time is getting shorter for the Legislature to finalize the budgets. Lawmakers will 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. Posted Feb. 26, 2014.