February 22, 2013 Group Watch

The legislature returned to work on Tuesday for the 6th day of the 2013 regular session and bills up for consideration and debate spanned a wide range of topics, from agency consolidation, to gun rights to a long-overdue pardon.

Tuesday: After hours of debate, the House passed a bill to place new regulations on abortion clinics. They will require doctors at the clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals in the same cities where they perform abortions. They also gave final approval to a bill setting up a plan to repay the Alabama Trust Fund the $437 million that was taken from the fund to bolster the state General Fund over three years. Lastly, the House passed a bill that would allow certain religiously affiliated employers to opt out the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that they cover contraception for their employees. Over in the Senate, after hours of debate, a bill to abolish about a half-dozen boards that control legislative agencies and consolidate their power under a new joint committee of senators and representatives was carried over. The Senate went on to pass a bill to establish a Fair Ballot Commission. This commission would approve statements that summarize statewide ballot measures in plain language for voters. The Senate also passed a bill that would permit municipalities and public utilities to allow contracts between the governing body and approved service providers to build, maintain and repair utility systems.

Wednesday (committee day): The House and Senate budget committees met jointly in budget hearings for the Alabama Medicaid Agency and the departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Human Resources. State Health Officer Don Williams told the panel the Medicaid Agency could manage its programs for fiscal 2014 with a $615 million appropriation from the General Fund, but would need more than $730 million in fiscal 2015 for the 900,00 Alabamians currently served by the agency. The House Education Policy Committee held a public hearing but did not vote on a bill to let some teachers carry guns in schools. The House State Government Committee approved a bill to allow Children’s Advocacy Centers to participate in the state employee’s insurance plan. This bill is at no cost to the taxpayers, but the nonprofit centers will achieve savings by participating in a larger group plan. The House Public Safety Committee approved a Senate-passed bill to consolidate several state law enforcement agencies. During the public hearing on the bill, members were assured that certain granting authority within the ADECA affecting local programs such as Children’s Advocacy Centers and Domestic Violence would remain in that agency. The Senate Education Committee approved the local school flexibility bill, which has already passed the House. The measure could come up for a vote in the Senate next week. Governor Bentley signed into law a bill that sets up a schedule to repay the Alabama Trust Fund the $437.4 million that will be transferred over three years to bolster the ailing General Fund.

Thursday: The House carried over a bill dealing with amending the state’s constitution to allow absolute rights to bear arms and requiring strict legal scrutiny of any measures that attempted to deny those rights. The House approved a bill to authorize a compact with other states to regulate healthcare. This measure would allow the state to partner with other states to bypass federal regulations and let states administer programs like Medicaid through block grants. The House also passed the Medicaid Fraud Reduction Act, which appropriates additional money for prosecutions, extends the statute of limitations and makes other changes designed to ease prosecutions. The Senate passed a bill to clarify the state’s authority to intervene with school systems that failing academically. The bill sets up criteria under which the state superintendent could undertake an educational intervention in a school system. They also approved an appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a bill to posthumously pardon the Scottsboro Boys and others wrongfully convicted of acts prior to 1932.

2/22/2013 Group Watch: Alabama AG Closes Victoryland

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange embarked on a double-barreled assault on “illegal gambling” Tuesday, seizing electronic bingo machines at the newly reopened Victory Land and filing a lawsuit in hopes of closing the state’s three Indian casino. The two actions were the latest in the long-running legal war over electronic bingo. Attorney Strange said the actions were taken to stop illegal gambling, but lawyers for the casinos say the actions are without merit and leave hundreds out of work. State troopers and investigators with the attorney general’s office arrived at Victory Land shortly before 8 a.m. with a search warrant obtained after the State Supreme Court ordered a local judge to reconsider his denial of the request. Trucks carried away hundreds of machines from the facility, along with an unspecified amount of cash. The attorney general’s office also filed a suit in Elmore County seeking to close the three Alabama casinos operated by the Poarch Band, alleging the tribe is “ operating, advancing, and profiting from the unlawful gambling activity” in its enterprise. The suit further claims the casinos on Native American land are a public nuisance to the surrounding areas and should be shut down.

February 15, 2013 Group Watch

The Alabama Legislature returned to work on Tuesday, Feb. 5, for the start of the 2013 regular session and quickly got down to business working on bills to streamline government and to make the state a better and safer place to live.

  • On Wednesday, Feb. 6: Senate Education Policy Committee conducted a public hearing but took no vote on a bill to permit local school boards greater flexibility on a broad range of education policy issues. Later in the day, the House Education Committee heard testimony on the same bill and after amendment, gave a favorable report to the bill. The bill, after amendment, allows schools to request relief from rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability. The amended House bill will allow local school districts to apply to the State Department of Education for waivers from state laws. The powerful teachers’ lobby, the Alabama Education Association, opposed the bill.  The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee amended and gave a favorable report to a bill to consolidate some state law enforcement and public safety agencies and create the cabinet position of Secretary of Public Safety.
  • On Thursday, Feb. 7: The House passed a bill to repay money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund to bolster the ailing General Fund. The House-passed bill would repay the $450 million over 13 years.
    They also passed a bill to create the Fair Ballot Commission and require the Secretary of State to post certain information on its website to keep voters informed.  The Senate carried over several bills including ones to create the Alabama Technology Authority, create a cabinet level position of Secretary of Information Technology and to create the cabinet position of Secretary of Public Safety and consolidate several state law enforcement agencies under a new Department of Public Safety. They passed a bill to create distinctive license plates for breast cancer research and make them available for motorcycles.
  • On Tuesday, Feb. 12: The House voted 92-0 for the “Red Tape Reduction Act” that requires state agencies to prepare an economic impact statement prior to adopting new regulations. They also voted 93-1 to authorize a $50 million bond issue to buy vocational education equipment for schools. The House debated a gun bill but delayed voting on the measure. The proposed constitutional amendment would write into the state constitution the right to bear arms is “fundamental” and that any restrictions on gun ownership are subject to strict scrutiny and stringent judicial review. The Senate approved a revamp of state law enforcement and information technology operations. The Public Safety bill would merge more than a dozen state law enforcement and investigation groups into a new Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency. The Senate also passed two bills relating to information technology. One of the measures creates the Alabama Technology Authority to coordinate information technology for state agencies, and the other creates the position of Secretary of Information Technology and a legislative oversight committee for IT. IT functions within the state Finance Department would transfer to the new Alabama Technology Authority who could contract with private companies to provide the services.
  •  On Wednesday, Feb. 13 (committee day): The House Boards, Agency and Commission Committee approved a bill aimed at keeping non-profit spay/neuter clinics open in the state. The House County and Municipal Government Committee sent several bills to sub-committees for further study including a bill that would allow utility services to let private contractors sell service and repair contracts to customers. The Senate Education Committee approved a version of the school flexibility bill after adding amendments to protect the current tenure process and to specify that the legislation can’t be used to create charter schools. The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee and the House Health Committee passed identical bills to authorize the State Employees’ Insurance Board to offer high-deductible plans with health savings accounts. The Senate Confirmations Committee approved the selection of Wayne Smith and Michael DeMaioribus as Auburn University trustees and the reappointment of Randy Owen as a trustee of Jacksonville State University.
  • On Thursday, Feb. 14: the House voted 65-37 to approve a bill that would allow school systems to seek waivers from the state education policies and laws. According to the bill’s sponsor, schools could do things like get permission to shift financial resources or hire a professional musician to teach a music class. Waivers would have to be approved by both the local and state board of education and the state superintendent of education. The bill says an employee could not be forced to give up “privileges acquired by that employee as a result of attaining tenure or non-probationary status.” The House debated a proposed constitutional amendment relating to the right to bear arms, but did not vote on the measure. The Senate passed a House-passed bill to establish a plan to repay the Alabama Trust Fund $437 million taken over three years to help fund Medicaid, prisons and other agencies. Because the measure was amended by the Senate, the House must concur with change before it can go to the governor for his signature.

2/15/2013 Group Watch: Alabama’s Preschool Program Praised

The state’s much heralded pre-kindergarten program is getting a lot of attention in recent days. The latest comes from the New York Times. In a national story about President Obama’s call in his State of the Union address to make high quality preschool available to every child in the nation, the Times story details the Alabama effort, including Governor Bentley’s push to better fund the program. In the governor’s state of the state address last week, he praised the program and told legislators he wants them to increase funding for it to the tune of an additional $12.5 million next fiscal year. The proposed increase would amount to a 60-percent increase in the program, which is nationally recognized for its quality. Read the full article here.

2/15/2013 Group Watch: State of the State

Governor Robert Bentley delivered the State of the State address on Tuesday evening. Governor Bentley outlined his agenda, vowing to repay money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund, defend gun rights and push for legislation to give local school boards flexibility in dealing with state laws. The governor also called for additional funding for the state’s pre-kindergarten program and a 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers and support workers. The 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers and support workers will cost an estimated $92.5 million, and Republican legislators held out hopes that money would be available to fund a 1-2 percent raise for education employees after they repay money to the Rainy Day Account and the Alabama Trust Fund. The governor also touted bills to consolidate state law enforcement agencies and information technology functions within state government to achieve efficiencies. Read the full address here.

January 2013 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

Things are getting busy in downtown Montgomery as the 2013 Legislative Session draws near.

  • “Guns in Schools” Summit at Capitol. Children’s safety at school was at the center of discussion recently in the auditorium of the state capitol. Lawmakers, educators and law enforcement came together to look at ways to prevent a school shooting in Alabama. The summit was in response to the school shooting in Connecticut that left 26 dead, including 20 young children. There was no discussion of new gun restrictions, like banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines. Most of the discussion centered on the role of teachers, law enforcement and mental health professionals. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has asked his Homeland Security Director to lay out a strategic plan for preventing and responding to active shooting situations. One lawmaker proposed to arm at least some school personnel to respond in such situations.
  • House Speaker Names Leaders. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard recently made some leadership appointments prior to the start of the 2013 regular session of the Legislature. He appointed Representative Lynn Greer of Rogersville to chair the committee on Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure; Representative Mac McCutcheon of Capshaw to chair the powerful Rules Committee; Representative Allen Farley of McCalla as vice chair of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee; and Representative Barry Moore of Enterprise was named vice chair of the Commerce and Small Business Committee. Speaker Hubbard also named Representative Bill Roberts of Jasper vice chair of the Committee on Boards, Agencies and Commissions.
  • Governor Bentley Backs Off Proposal for 2013 Session. Governor Robert Bentley has backed off one of his proposals for the 2013 legislative session starting February 5. The governor talked in September about passing financial incentives to get veteran state employees to retire and reduce the state payroll. During the holidays, he announced was putting the proposal on hold because the state was achieving savings without the incentives. His decisions came after only a few hundred state workers expressed interest in such incentives and after the state pension system warned that the short-term savings on payroll might not be worth the long-term effect on pension and health insurance costs. Bentley said in a recent interview, “If we have the right number retire, we will not have to provide incentives, and it will save the state money”.

January 2013 Group Watch: Tweet of the Month

 from @SenTomWhatley
Aubie riding to the farm to begin “supervising” Tyler and Bo this morning. He is tough but fair.

January 2013 Group Watch: Sen Shelby Gains Important Seat

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is the new top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he will have an even greater say in how federal dollars are spent. The slot opened when Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi moved to become the top GOP member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. For Shelby, it was a two-decade-long wait for his seniority to accumulate. Senate Republicans gave him a seat on the coveted panel after he switched parties in 1994, and he has showered the state with federal dollars ever since — mostly for defense and aerospace projects; medical, science and engineering facilities; and public universities. As vice chair, he will have a strong say over federal budget items such as Social Security and Medicare.

January 2013 Group Watch: “No Need for Federal Input”

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says the state’s practice of discriminating against minorities at the ballot box is a relic from a bygone era, and the state no longer deserves to be punished for it. Strange filed a brief to support a challenge brought by Shelby County to two key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The provisions require the state to ask the Justice Department or a federal court for approval before making any changes to election procedures. State officials argue that preclearance allows the Justice Department to discriminate against states subject to preclearance and interferes with the state’s regular business by delaying the implementation of changes. The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in late February.

December 2012 Group Watch: News & Views from the Statehouse

The holidays are here, and we’ve got some news — good and otherwise — to share.

  • Alabama Moves Up 3 Spots: We’re moving on up! A recently released study by United Health Foundation reveals that Alabama is out-performing many of its Gulf Coast neighbors. The state rose to number 45 in the annual national health rankings, putting us ahead of South Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Yet risk factors such as healthcare coverage and crime rates continue to be challenges for the state. The study lists obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles among the state’s biggest problems. While the number of smokers has fallen in recent years, more than 24 percent of the adult population continues to smoke. The gains made in Alabama are attributed to increased high-school graduation rates and lower infant mortality rates. Alabama was 4th in fewest binge drinkers and 10th for the most public health funding per capita.
  • Governor & Wreaths Across America: Governor Robert Bentley recently took part in the Wreaths Across America Statehouse ceremony sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Following the ceremony in the state capital auditorium, a wreath was taken to the Fallen Heroes Memorial Wall in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the capital. All Statehouse ceremonies nationwide will pay tribute to America’s fallen service members while honoring those currently serving. The ceremonies were held in advance of the national day, which was December 15.
  • State Board of Education Takes Action: The State Board of Education announced recommendations to the Montgomery Public School system relating to findings of grade changing involving 200 of the systems 14,000+ students. The recommendations included disciplinary action on the implicated staff, the development and implementation of more clear guidelines of the current grade reporting system, and the placement of a monitor, appointed by the state, to oversee compliance with the plan. The incident was described as “ a very critical breach of academic integrity.” The investigation revealed that the majority of the infractions were not made by classroom teachers but by administrative staff assigned by the superintendent to supervise the secondary education program at the district and school level.
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