2/17/12 Group Watch: Mental Health to Close Facilities

The Alabama Department of Mental Health has proposed a plan that would close all but two mental health facilities in the state. The commissioner announced on Wednesday a plan to close all but the Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Center and Bryce Hospital, both in Tuscaloosa. If implemented, the plan eliminates 948 jobs in the department and at least 473 hospital residents will be placed into community-based care. The Mental Health Commissioner blames looming budget cuts and the possibility of federal funds for the plan. Patient advocates say it is a tough choice but support the commissioner’s plan.

February 10, 2012 Group Watch: Alabama Lawmakers Return

Lawmakers returned to work on Tuesday and received bad news: State agencies likely will face cuts in this year’s budget, and the cuts for next year will be much bigger, possibly forcing the release of prisoners and tearing holes in the state’s safety net of social services. The interim director of the Legislative Fiscal Office and the governor’s finance director told legislators that the state General Fund budget will likely fall $171 million short and that 9 percent across-the-board cuts will be needed to balance the current year’s budget. Likewise, revenues for next year’s budget are expected to be reduced by a half billion dollars, and agencies may have to look at cuts of 25 percent from this year’s budget. In the General Fund, half of the drop in revenue is due to the state not being able to replace $280 million in capital gains from state investments that were used in this year’s budget. Also contributing to the decline are smaller interest earnings on state deposits due to low interest rates.

2/10/12 Group Watch: State-of-The-State Address

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley in his state-of-the-state speech Tuesday night outlined his agenda for the 2012 regular session as follows:

  • Invest more in workforce development and career tech programs to help Alabama recruit jobs.
  • Free businesses from unnecessary and bureaucratic roadblocks.
  • Borrow money through a bond issue to repair roads and replace bridges.
  • Consolidate state agencies, streamline the issuing of state licenses and save on technology to cope with a 25 percent cut in the General Fund budget.
  • Give schools more flexibility to develop their own strategies free of state and federal bureaucracies.
  • Create charter schools to give parents a choice of where their children attend school.
  • Give teachers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit when they spend their money on their classrooms.
  • Create a teacher cabinet of teachers, administrators, school board members and parents to get unfiltered feedback on the needs of public schools.
  • Start a health alliance to reduce Alabama’s rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and infant mortality.

2/10/12 Group Watch: Committee Highlights

On Wednesday, a committee day and the second legislative day, the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved a package of bills aimed at bringing more jobs to the state. The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved a bill to ban the sending or receiving of text type communication while driving and a bill allowing the use of military identification cards when buying car tags and doing business transactions to prove citizenship under the state’s immigration laws. The Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee approved a bill to extend the amount of time companies have to get a tax break for capital improvements. The Legislative Council voted overwhelmingly to reject three proposed rule changes made by the state Medicaid Agency.

2/10/12 Group Watch: Alabama Joins Mortgage Serving Settlement

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange announced on Thursday that the state is formally joining a $25 billion national joint federal-state agreement with the nation’s largest mortgage servicers relating to foreclosure abuses and fraud, as well as unacceptable nationwide mortgage serving practices. The Office of the attorney General said the proposed agreement provides an estimated $106 million in direct relief to Alabama homeowners. According to the Attorney General, the settlement addresses future mortgage loan servicing practices. Strange said that the agreement provides much-needed relief to Alabama borrowers and puts a stop to many of the bad behaviors that contributed to the mortgage mess in our state and across the country. Under the settlement, immunity from criminal prosecution is not granted, and it will permit homeowners to pursue individual class action civil cases against the servicers.

2/10/12 Group Watch: First Bills Of The 2012 Session

On Thursday, the legislature passed the first bills of the 2012 regular session. The House passed four bills of general application including a measure to change the name of the Alabama Development Office and Director of Development to the Commerce Department and Secretary of Commerce, respectively. This measure also provides for several persons to be employed outside the merit system to assist the Secretary. They also passed measures aimed at luring data processing centers to locate in the state and expanded tax incentives to the coal mining industry. The Senate passed eight bills of general application including a bill to provide income tax credits for the purchase and installation of irrigation systems, water wells and reservoirs by agricultural entities and to further clarify the statues relating to criminal background checks for the Department of Human Resources and Public Safety.

 

GOP Wants To Create Jobs During The Session

Republican leaders in the Alabama Legislature say their priority at the beginning of the 2012 regular session in February will be to pass bills that will encourage businesses to create jobs. Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh said the first bills he expects to come up for consideration in the Senate are measures that will provide incentives for businesses that create jobs and for new industries that bring jobs to the state.

Likewise, House Speaker Mike Hubbard told members of a Birmingham civic club that Republican House leaders are preparing a slate of bills that will give the state more tools to recruit industry and to help existing industry to expand. He went on to say the No. 1 priority is job creation. The state’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in November, which represents an improvement over previous months, but Marsh and Hubbard would like to see the rate lower.

One bill expected to be considered early in the session would provide incentives for companies that hire veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure is expected to provide a $2,000 tax credit to employers who hire unemployed veterans. The House is also poised to consider a bill authorizing charter schools in Alabama. Charter schools are public schools that are free from much of the bureaucracy and regulations of traditional public schools.

House Speaker Wants Changes To Retirement

Alabama House Speaker wants changes to the state’s retirement system. Speaker Mike Hubbard says that taxpayers cannot continue to support an investment strategy that cost the state $1 billion in 2011 for public employees’ retirement benefits and matching contributions.

Hubbard said lawmakers are not seeking to “raid the pension fund.” He said he and others want a new retirement plan for new public employees and those who have been in the system less than 10 years. Proposed changes could be addressed during the legislative session that starts on February 7.

Alabama Senator Again Plans Smoking Ban Bill

An Alabama Senator plans to again push comprehensive legislation in the upcoming session to allow voters to decide if they want to ban smoking in most public places in the state.

Democratic Senator Vivian Figures of Mobile say she plans to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban smoking in places of employment, public places and private clubs.

She has tried for several years to pass bills restricting smoking in public places without success. She says she is particularly concerned about the effect second-hand smoke has on children, causing respiratory infections and other health issues. Veteran observers think the measure will again have difficulty passing.

 

Governor Bentley Wants Unified Education, General Fund Budget

Governor Robert Bentley has said he plans to ask the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment combining the state’s two budgets and allowing some money now allocated for education to be spent on state agencies. Bentley said Alabama should have a unified budget like 47 other states, but not all of the tax revenue set aside for education must be made available for other uses.

House and Senate leaders say they agree with the governor and that more flexibility is needed in the budget process. They also agree that ample revenue for education must be maintained. The new head of the Alabama Education Association, Dr. Henry Mabry, said there is no way the governor can keep his promises to the schoolchildren if he goes ahead with his plan. According to Mabry, the governor’s plan will result in fewer teachers, large class sizes and possibly a shorter school year. The teachers’ lobby has traditionally opposed any plans to repeal laws setting aside taxes for education. Should the Legislature approve the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment, it would have to be approved by the voters in a statewide referendum.

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