6/1/2015 Group Watch: Charter School Commission

On Tuesday, the Alabama State Board of Education confirmed a list of appointed nominees to the state’s new charter school commission. A few weeks ago the board declined to confirm nominees, prompting the introduction of legislation to remove that authority from them. Upon hearing of Tuesday’s confirmation by the state board, Representative Terri Collins withdrew her bill from the House calendar. State Superintendent Tommy Bice said the board will serve the commission as administrative support.

6/1/2015 Group Watch: Prison Reform

On Thursday, the Alabama Department of Corrections reached an agreement with the Department of Justice to protect inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison from sexual assault and abuse.The agreement calls for a full-time monitor, and the federal court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the agreement.

May 26, 2015 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

This past week, the Alabama Legislature passed bills to provide for the continued operations of educational and non-educational functions of government and to assist local governments in functioning with autonomy and efficiency.

  • Tuesday (23rd Day of Regular Session): The House Ways and Means Education Committee approved a substitute education budget that had passed the Senate. The committee substitute provided $10 million in additional funding for pre-k, which when coupled with the $17 million in recently received federal funding, provides for a $27 million expansion in the next 12 months. The House passed bills to provide for regulation by the Public Service Commission of gas and hazardous liquids; to appropriate tobacco revenue to the Children First Trust Fund; to provide for the appropriations for the ordinary expenses of the executive, legislative and judicial departments of government, also known as the General Fund Budget. The controversial proposal contains deep cuts in the absolute appropriations to agencies, but provides conditional amounts that would restore most agencies to level or near-level funding if new revenue measures are found. The House also passed bills to authorize business license taxes for home-health agencies to be due to the municipal or county government where the headquarters or branch office is located; to limit the operation of golf carts on streets and require liability insurance where such use is authorized; and to extend the supplemental privilege assessment and monthly surcharge to nursing facilities. They also gave final approval to a Senate-passed bill requiring that at least one member of the Jefferson County Retirement System Board be a retiree. The Senate passed bills to authorize drivers in accidents with no apparent physical injury to move motor vehicles from the roadway; to create the Property Insurance and Energy Reduction Act of Alabama; to create the State Campaign Finance Commission; to permit a retail licensee and state liquor store to conduct distilled liquor and wine tastings; and to integrate into the Medicaid care network the provision of long-term care to elderly and disabled persons on a managed-care basis.
  • Wednesday (Committee Day): The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved a bill to permit Briarwood Presbyterian Church to hire certified police officers to patrol its campuses, which include an elementary, high school and seminary. The Senate Education Committee gave a favorable report to a bill known as the Tim Tebow Act, which would allow students who are home schooled to participate in sports at the public school in their district. The Chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee announced the House-passed “bare boned” General Fund budget will be in his committee next week and said he is hopeful that options other than the House-passed budget will be on the table. He went on to say that he will not rule out new revenue proposals. Informed sources say there are renewed discussions about a tobacco tax and a soft drink tax.
  • Thursday (24th Day of Regular Session): The House passed bills to create a Legislative Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability; to exempt regional care organizations from state, county and municipal taxes; and to fund the essential education functions of government to include Talladega College, Tuskegee University and Lyman Ward Military Academy. The Senate passed bills to authorize disabled and elderly voters to go to the front of the line at polling places; to provide for appeals of the Administrative Procedures Act directly to the Lt. Governor; and to reconstitute the Legislative Council and make the Alabama Law Institute part of the Legislature.

5/26/15 Group Watch: Jobs Numbers

Governor Robert Bentley and the Alabama Department of Commerce released a report that shows there were 392 projects in 2014 for a total of 18,137 jobs and investments of $3.37 billion. According to the report, Madison County lead the state in job creation with 3,418 new jobs. Other top job producing counties include Jefferson (1,929), Tuscaloosa (1,264), Lee (755) and Cullman (704). Top counties for investment were Lee ($482 million), Escambia ($376 million), Madison ($321 million), Jefferson ($189 million) and Mobile ($168 million).

May 18, 2015 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

This past week, the Alabama Legislature passed bills to assist local communities in addressing their needs, to further address improvements in education, and to assist local communities during the electoral process.

  • Tuesday (21st Day of Regular Session): The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee held a public hearing on a bill to allow a statewide vote on a lottery and gambling at the state’s dog tracks but took no vote on the measure. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston said he would consider suggestions from other legislators on possible changes before seeking a committee vote. The House passed bills to amend the Administrative Procedure Act to allow for appeals to the Lt. Governor; to further provide distribution of sales and use taxes in Jefferson County; and to provide for an increase in sales and use taxes in Tuscaloosa County and further provide for the distribution of the proceeds. They carried over a bill to cap the interest rates on payday loans. The Senate passed appropriation bills from the Education Trust Fund to Lyman Ward Military Academy, Tuskegee University and Talladega College and supplemental appropriations to several state entities for the current fiscal year.
  • Wednesday (Committee Day): Tthe House Boards, Agencies and Commissions Committee voted favorably on a bill to allow veterinarians to work for non-profit spay and neuter clinics, but as in previous years, many say it probably won’t achieve final passage in both chambers. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow judges and clergy to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for any reason. The bill also known as Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act has already passed the House and now awaits consideration by the full Senate.
  • Thursday (22nd Day of Regular Session): The House passed bills to provide electronic books in lieu of printed lists to qualified voters at polling places; to provide warrant recall fees in municipal court cases in Shelby and Jefferson Counties be deposited into the Corrections Fund; to provide that unemployment compensation benefits are reduced if the individual receives or is eligible to receive pension payments from a plan maintained or contributed to solely by the employer; and to revise the membership and terms to the boards of trustee at Jacksonville State University and the University of North AlabamaThe Senate passed bills to further define what constitutes a failing school and to increase the homestead and personal exemptions. The House Ways and Means General Fund Committee reported out a General Fund budget with massive cuts, but did provide consideration for conditional appropriations that would undo the devastating cuts if new revenue is available. The measure will likely face strong opposition when it reaches the floor for debate next week. The governor says that he will veto the plan if it reaches his desk as reported out of committee. The House Ways and Means Education Committee heard testimony on the education budget but delayed a vote until next week. The reaction to the committee proposal was generally positive and well received. The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee approved a bill to allow a statewide vote on a lottery and gambling at the state’s four greyhound tracks.

5/18/2015 Group Watch: Why Public Insurance Adjusters?

By: Holly K. Soffer, Esq., General Counsel, AAPIA

Alabama is poised to license public insurance adjusters, and the legislature can’t act too quickly. Extreme weather has been plaguing many parts of the country, and home and business owners are often left feeling helpless and alone in the aftermath of these severe storms or after any type of property damage.

Public insurance adjusters are licensed in almost every state in the country as advocates for home or business owners who have suffered property damage; they are on the ground every day fighting for policyholders and have seen the heartbreaking damage that storms can cause as well as the problems that people face after such an event. Unfortunately, the claims process can be long and difficult, and the homeowner must navigate many obstacles to recovery. Public insurance adjusters help policy holders, both commercial and residential, through this complex process.

Why are public insurance adjusters needed by homeowners? And how can the homeowners be made whole if they have to pay a public insurance adjuster a portion of the recovery? The answers to these often asked questions are simple.

After suffering a loss, most people do not have the time and/or expertise to properly evaluate their insurance coverage or to estimate the actual damage and effectively negotiate with the insurance company adjuster who does have such expertise. A policyholder must rely on the insurance company to evaluate the extent of the loss, determine coverage, and provide a prompt and fair financial settlement. The interests of the insurance company in this process are directly opposed to the policyholder, yet the policyholder must rely on the insurance company to perform these services. Most insurance company adjusters act with professionalism and treat the policyholder fairly, yet, the homeowner is still at a great disadvantage. The insurance company adjuster is not an advocate for the homeowner, but is a paid employee of the insurance company, or a third party who has been hired for the purpose of adjusting the claim on behalf of and for the benefit of the insurance company, and will put the interests of the insurance company ahead of the consumer. This inequality leads to the undervaluing of claims.

Historically, in Alabama, attorneys have stepped in to help negotiate for those who have suffered property damage, but attorneys aren’t always a cost-effective solution for a homeowner. According to the 2015 Insurance Information Fact Book published by the Insurance Information Institute, the average-sized homeowners’ claim nationally from 2008-2012 was $8,384. As a result, the victim of the “average” claim is not often able to hire an attorney for representation, due to the prohibitive cost of paying the attorney on an hourly basis or finding an attorney to charge a contingent fee on a small claim. Licensed public insurance adjusters provide the necessary, yet cost- effective, expert help these people need to fairly adjust these property damage claims.

A few years ago, the state of Florida conducted a study and found that homeowners who used public insurance adjusters on non-catastrophic claims received, on average, a 574-percent higher settlement amount than homeowners who did not use a public insurance adjuster (OPPAGA Report No. 10-06, p.8). These results indicate that the homeowner receives greater value even when having to pay the public adjuster’s fee from the recovery. Therefore, instead of asking how the homeowner can be made whole when using the services of a public insurance adjuster, the question should be whether the homeowner can be made whole without the services of a public insurance adjuster. Empirical evidence suggests that the answer is usually “No.”

By enacting legislation to allow for the licensing of public insurance adjusters, Alabama will be doing a great service to its property owners, both residential and commercial. For more information of the value of a public insurance adjuster, please click here  and scroll down to the video “The Value of Hiring a Public Insurance Adjuster” to view an interview with Gene Veno, president of the American Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.

5/18/2015 Group Watch: Mental Health Rally

Hundreds of people rallied at the State House in support of mental health services. The rally took place on Wednesday, after the House leadership pulled all the budget bills that will generate revenue from being voted on. The governor is predicting that more than 24,000 people will lose some or all of the services they receive and more than 1,000 mental health workers will lose their jobs. The cut in state dollars will result in the loss of $64 million in federal dollars because the of the agency’s inability to generate the state match.

May 11, 2015 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

This past week, the Alabama Legislature passed bills to protect children from labor law abuse and proposed measures to address the state’s revenue woes and the state’s prisons problems.

  • Tuesday (19th Day of Regular Session): The House passed bills to revise the formula for calculating the weekly benefit for individuals receiving unemployment; to revise Limited Liability Law relating to wrongful distributions; to authorize the Law Enforcement Agency to appoint a designee as Homeland Security Advisor; and to designate the age of majority as 18 years old for participation in college/university research. After hours of debate and maneuvering, the House voted to cloture debate and passed a Senate-passed bill relating to the Birmingham Water Board. The Senate gave final approval to a House-passed bill to increase certain insurance fees and licenses and to provide for an appropriation to the Insurance Department’s Strengthen Alabama Homes Fund for fiscal year 2016. They also passed bills to create the Alabama Space Authority; to strengthen current law on child labor law enforcement; and to further expand the authority of the Department of Corrections Investigation and Intelligence Division.
  • Wednesday (Committee Day): The House Financial Service Committee approved a bill that provides new limits on payday loans. The proposed bill gives borrowers more time to repay the loan and much lower interest rates. The Ways and Means General Fund Committee wasted little time approving bills to raise cigarette taxes from 42.5 cents a pack to 67.5 cents a pack; raising car title fees from $15 to $25; raising auto rental/leasing taxes from 1.5 percent to 2 percent; changing the assessment on lubricating oils from a 6-cent excise tax to a 4-percent sales tax; treating two state holidays as mandatory furlough days for nonessential state workers; and suspending longevity pay for state workers for one year. The House Health Committee approved three bills that would prohibit providers from performing abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected; would allow healthcare providers to decline to participate in any procedure that violates their conscience; and to ban abortion clinics or reproductive health centers within 2,000 feet of a public school.
  • Thursday (20th Day of Regular Session):  The House passed a Senate-passed bill to reform the state’s correctional system in hopes of avoiding federal intervention. They also passed bills to provide that compensation may be determined solely by a local governing body if a district is within a 21st Century Manufacturing Zone, which must be ratified by voters in a statewide referendum; to require public schools to allow home school students to play sports at the public school to which they are zoned; and to transfer certain programs of the Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the Department of Postsecondary Education to the Department of Commerce. The Senate passed bills to provide certain restrictions on vision care services provided by optometrists and ophthalmologists who have contracts with insurers and to provide for a compliance certificate being substituted for a certificate of good standing relating to business privilege taxes. The House Ways and Means General Fund Committee reconsidered and tabled bills to require mandatory furlough days for state workers and to suspend longevity pay for state workers. The House State Government Committee amended a Senate-passed bill relating to architects and engineers.

5/11/2015 Group Watch: Republican Revenue Plan

The House Republican Caucus in the Alabama House of Representatives proposed raising taxes on cigarettes, car titles and car rentals as part of a plan to fix the state budget. The overall plan calls for $200 million in revenue increases and cost reductions. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh has proposed a lottery and expanded gaming at the state’s four greyhound tracks. Twenty-two members of the house Republican caucus introduced legislation to make it illegal for a gambling interest, or a person acting on behalf of a gambling interest, to make campaign contributions to a person running for elective office.

May 4, 2015 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

This past week, the Alabama Legislature passed bills to continue a number of state boards and commissions, to assist local government in functioning efficiently. Also, plans for possible expansion and regulation of gaming in the state were discussed.

  • Tuesday (17th Day of Regular Session): The House gave final approval to Senate-passed bills for electric utility facilities regulated by the Public Service Commission to connect with other electric suppliers; to provide immunity for damages arising from products not designed, manufactured, sold or leased by a manufacturer; and to clarify the exemption for degree-granting (colleges and universities) entities operating under reciprocity agreements. They also passed local bills for Tuscaloosa County relating to member contributions for the retirement system for police officers and firefighters, and to change the local election date. The Senate gave final approval to House-passed bills to continue the Athlete Agents Commission; the Massage Therapy Board; the Board of Examiners on Admission to the State Bar; the Occupational Therapy Board; the Polygraph Examiners Board; the Onsite Wastewater Board; the Engineers and Land Surveyors Board of Licensure; and Board of Examiners for Chiropractors.
  • Wednesday (Committee Day): The House Health Committee held a public hearing on three abortion-related bills. One of the bills bans abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, and another allows medical professionals to opt out of procedures based on their conscience. A third bill, which is said to be designed to shut down a Huntsville abortion clinic located across the street from a school, is said to be about protecting school-age children.The committee heard from parties on both sides of the matter but took no vote. The committee will likely vote this week.  The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would require couples wanting to be married to enter into a properly executed contract witnessed by two adults. The contract would then be filed in the probate office, and would govern same-sex marriages no matter the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling. The House Commerce and Small Business Committee considered a bill to establish a statewide framework to allow the transport company Uber to operate in the state, but took no action on the measure. The committee also conducted a public hearing on a Senate-passed bill relating to the Birmingham Water Board. Although they did not vote on Wednesday, they approved the measure on a voice vote on Thursday morning.
  • Thursday (18th Day of Regular Session): The Senate passed bills to establish a line item in the General Fund Budget for dredging navigable waters; to prohibit certain public officials from serving as lobbyists for a two-year period; to exempt the Birmingham Zoo, Inc. from state, county and local sales and use taxes; and to provide that at least one member of the Jefferson County Retirement Board be a retired member.

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