April 6, 2012 Group Watch: This Week in the Legislature

This week started with the 16th meeting day of the 2012 regular session. Charter school legislation was a major issue voted upon, among many others.

Tuesday: The House Ways and Means-Education Committee approved a settlement aimed at saving Alabama’s financial college tuition plan and debated but did not vote on a bill to authorize charter schools in Alabama. The House passed bills to establish a statewide E-911 board, to allow prison inmates to be used by private industry on projects with part of the inmate earnings going to pay restitution and incarceration costs, and to make it a felony to file false lien against law enforcement officers and public officials. The Senate joined the House in passing a resolution supporting development of a space port in Alabama. They also approved an appropriations bill that includes $45.3 million for prisons.

Wednesday (a committee day): The House Education Policy Committee voted to approve a bill that changes the mandatory age when children must attend school in Alabama. The House Ways and Means-General Fund Committee approved a $1.39 billion budget that is $430 million less than the spending plan for the current fiscal year. State employee representatives say the plan will result in substantial employee layoffs. The committee also approved a bill to allow excess money collected in class action lawsuits to go into a fund to help children who have been abused or neglected. The House Ways and Means-Education Committee debated but did not vote on a bill to authorize charter schools in Alabama. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill creating the Good Samaritan Law that would give licensed social workers, counselors and psychologists civil immunity for rendering aid in an emergency. The Senate Confirmations Committee approved five new trustees for the Auburn University board: Birmingham attorney James Pratt, Auburn banker Robert Dumas, Mobile businessman Ben Thomas Roberts, M. Clark Sahlie of Montgomery and Elizabeth Huntley from Clanton.

Thursday: The House Ways and Means-Education Committee met and debated for the third consecutive day a measure to authorize charter schools in Alabama. The committee voted 9-6 to approve the bill. The vote was along party lines with one Republican member joining five Democrats opposing the bill. The House approved bills to change the system of compensation for legislators, to restore a settlement aimed at saving Alabama’s financially troubled prepaid college tuition plan and to designate Baldwin County as the site of a future military museum. They also passed a resolution congratulating the Scouts on their 100th anniversary. The Senate passed bills to provide a tax break to aircraft maintenance companies, to have a one-week wait for unemployment benefits after losing a job, and to provide tax breaks to data processing centers locating in Alabama.

Group Watch 4/6/2012: Legislature Looking at Staff Furloughs

The Alabama Legislature is looking at furloughing its employees to cope with cuts in the state General Fund budget. The Senate leadership voted this week to authorize Senate Secretary Pat Harris to implement furloughs of up to two days per month if necessary. The House leadership has previously given House Clerk Greg Pappas the same authority. Legislative leaders say they have already cut purchases and security costs and will make additional cuts that are necessary.

Group Watch 4/6/2012: Tougher Drug Penalties

Alabamians carrying more than eight grams of an illegal drug would be faced with tougher penalties under a bill passed by the House this week. The bill would make it a Class B felony to carry more than eight grams of an illegal substance, such as cocaine or heroin. The crime would be punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The bill’s sponsor says the proposal is aimed at making it easier to target street-level drug dealers who sell in small amounts. Less than 28 grams under current law is a Class C felony and is considered for personal use.

 

March 28, 2012 Group Watch: Last Week in the Legislature

Tuesday, the 14th meeting day of the 2012 regular session: The House passed two bills that would alter the organizational structure of the Department of Transportation to allow the director to appoint three deputy directors and a chief engineer. They also approved bills to make looting a crime, to reimburse Mobile County for extra expenses caused by a presidential primary in 2008 that was on the same day as Mardi Gras Day and to make it a crime to impersonate a local official or law enforcement officer. They debated at length a bill to establish minimum qualifications for sheriffs in Alabama but did not vote on it and approved a resolution mourning the death of Ricky Wyatt, who was the plaintiff in a long running lawsuit against the Department of Mental Health.

The Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee voted to approve a supplemental appropriation of $45 million to the Department of Correction to protect it against budget cuts. That Department is said to be dangerously close to federal intervention. The full Senate gave final approval to bills that give tax credits to businesses that hire unemployed veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and to change the name of the state’s industry recruiting office from the Alabama Development Office to the Department of Commerce. Both bills now go to the governor, who is expected to sign them into law.

Wednesday, a committee day: The House Ways and Means-Education Committee conducted a public hearing on a bill that would allow the creation of charter schools in Alabama but did not vote on the measure. The House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections Committee voted favorably on a bill to change the manner in which legislative members are compensated. The Senate Constitution and Elections Committee also voted favorably on a bill to change the way legislators are compensated and a bill that would allow the recall of public officials.

The Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee approved a bill to reduce the amount future retirees will receive and increase the number required before they can retire. The measure would affect public workers hired on and after January 1, 2013. The Senate Confirmations Committee also approved the appointment of three incumbent members of the Auburn University Board of Trustees.

Thursday, the 15th day of the session: The House passed a number of Senate-passed bills to continue the existence of state agencies, boards and commissions. They also passed bills to exempt items used to treat diabetes, such as syringes and insulin, from state, county and municipal sales and use taxes and make the continuous sexual abuse of a young person a crime. The Senate gave final approval to a House-passed bill to allow aircraft companies to take advantage of incentives offered to companies that create jobs. They also passed bills to expand the ways state deposits may be invested, setting certain minimum standards for sheriffs, to set limits on how much of a state employee’s unused sick leave can be accumulated and paid at retirement, to stop police officers from racial profiling when stopping a motorist for possible traffic violations, to set sentencing guidelines for Alabama judges and to establish the crime of looting in times that a state of emergency has been declared.

Group Watch 3/28/2012: Hollywood Comes to Town

Montgomery native and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer was greeted by hundreds as she arrived at the Alabama Statehouse to a hero’s welcome. She arrived in a pink limousine for joint session of the Legislature in her honor. She was serenaded by the band from her alma mater, Jefferson Davis High School. Earlier this year, she won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the movie “The Help.” Spencer told the crowd that she would do whatever she could to see that more movies are made in Alabama. This week, a Senate committee approved a House-passed bill to raise the limit of tax credits to filmmakers making movies in Alabama from $10 million to $15 million.

Group Watch 3/28/2012: Governor Declares Proration

Governor Robert Bentley ordered state agencies to reduce spending from their General Fund appropriations by 10.6 percent. The announcement came at the end of the day last Friday and marks the third consecutive year state programs have suffered double-digit cuts. Alabama’s Constitution prohibits deficit spending and requires the governor to order across the board reductions when appropriations exceed revenues. State Personnel officials say that department officials are already calling for training and directions for instituting layoffs. The state Agriculture Commissioner notified his employees that their salaries would be reduced up to 7.5 percent in lieu of further staff reductions. He has reduced his staff by 25 percent since taking office in January 2011. Since January 2011, there are over 1,600 fewer state employees.

March 16, 2012 Group Watch: This Week in the Legislature

The Legislature returned for a short workweek on Wednesday the 12th day of the 2012 regular session. They did not meet on Tuesday due to statewide primary elections. Here’s what they were up to.

Wednesday: The House and Senate Constitution and Elections Committees postponed consideration of bills to restructure legislators’ compensation. The House passed a number of bills including a bill to ban school bus drivers from using mobile telephones in any capacity while driving except in emergencies, to allow cities to create entertainment districts where citizens can drink from open containers and to allow the state take up payments of health insurance premiums for families of state workers killed in the line of duty.

They also passed bills increasing the penalties for stalking and aggravated stalking, also called Tracy’s Law, and to provide for direct appeals to the Court of Civil Appeals relating to Certificate of Need (CON). The Senate passed sunset bills to continue the following agencies, boards and commissions: Electronic Security Board of Licensure, Board of Cosmetology, Board of Real Estate Appraisers, Board of Auctioneers, Pilotage Commission, Examiners of Mine Personnel, Board of Dental Examiners and Board of Boilers and Pressure Vessels. The Senate also welcomed back Senator Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb after her acquittal last week in the state’s gambling corruption trial.

Thursday: The House passed several bills of local application including one to authorize the participation of certain Jefferson County employees in the Retirement Systems of Alabama. They also passed general bills to further regulate sale of products containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and create an electronic drug offender tracking system and to create the Digital Crime Act for persons using technology equipment in the commission of a crime.

The Senate passed sunset bills to continue the following agencies, boards and commissions: Board of Electrical Contractors, Board of Examiners for Plumbers and Gas Fitters, Board of Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Contractors, Department of Insurance, Board of Examiners in Psychology, Board of Examiners in Counseling, Liquefied Petroleum Gas Board, ABC Board, Public Accountancy Board, Board of Court Reporting, Board of Social Work Examiners, Security Commission, Real Estate Commission and the Board of Funeral Service. They also passed a bill requiring the Governor to approve new rules as propose by agencies before they are certified.

Group Watch 3/16/12: Construction at Bryce Stops

Alabama mental health officials announced this week they have halted construction of a facility to replace Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa and are reconsidering a plan to close some existing psychiatric hospitals. The governor and his mental health commissioner told the state mental health board that they are lifting a September 30 deadline for the proposed closure of several psychiatric hospitals in the state. They emphasized their commitment to move patient care from hospitals to community settings, but will take time to develop the infrastructure, such as regional homes and crisis centers. The governor and commissioner said they are looking at whether completing the $73 million hospital in Tuscaloosa is the best use of the department’s dwindling budget.

Group Watch 3/16/12: Alabama Unemployment Drops

The state’s unemployment rate has dropped to 7.8 percent, the lowest rate in more than three years. State officials announced this week that the January rate was down from 8 percent in December. It was the sixth straight monthly decline since Alabama’s rate peaked at 10 percent in July of last year. The January rate is the lowest since the state measured 7.3 percent unemployment in December 2008. Officials say manufacturing jobs are leading the recovery followed by leisure and hospitality jobs. The latter is a result of a boost in both tourism and business-related travel. The state Revenue Department reports that sales tax receipts are up 5 percent from a year ago, and individual income tax payments are up nearly 2 percent for the same period. Corporate income tax payments have increased nearly 20 percent.

Group Watch 3/16/12: Indian Casinos Grow Fast in AL

A recently published gambling industry study shows that Indian casinos in Alabama have been making money at a faster rate than any others in the nation. It is reported that Indian gaming grew 61 percent in 2010, giving the state the fastest growth rate among the 28 states with Indian casinos. Indian casinos’ revenue also grew faster than other casinos in 2008 and 2009. The report attributes the large increase in part to the crackdown on non-Indian, state-regulated facilities.

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