2/24/12 Group Watch: Trimming Down

Most newly elected governors form task forces to look at streamlining state government. The reports are beautifully bound and distributed to the members of the task force and then begin to collect dust. In the recent budget submitted to the Legislature, Governor Bentley framed his budget proposal in the context of consolidation. In the executive branch, the Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and the Office of Special Needs were merged into the Department of Human Resources. The Department of Labor is proposed to be under the much larger Department of Industrial Relations. Legislative leaders are reportedly looking at consolidating the dozens of licensure boards into a Department of Licensure and Regulatory Services. Many realize that any changes will result in long-term savings but no immediate windfall. Most staff reductions would be achieved over time through attrition and retirement. Procedures currently in place governing reductions in force could easily take 18 to 24 months to exhaust. The shortfall in state revenue is equally daunting and will not correct itself in the near term, and no one in town seems to expect any revenue bills to pass. So, like it or not, streamlining to some extent is likely.

2/24/12 Group Watch: Rallies Continue

On Wednesday, before budget hearings for the Department of Mental Health, more than 300 rallied outside of the Alabama State House appealing to lawmakers not to cut funding for mental health services. Many of the attendees wore distinctive red shirts and receive services for alcoholism, mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities from the Department of Mental Health. Speakers at the rally told stories of holding jobs and living normal lives despite their mental disabilities. The department is facing budget cuts that could be as much as 25 percent.

February 17, 2012 Group Watch

The Alabama Legislature returned to work on Tuesday for the fourth meeting day of the 2012 session and embarked on a busy week. Here’s a day-by-day look at the news you need to know.

Tuesday: The House approved the “Heroes for Hire” legislation that provides tax incentives to companies that hire military veterans.  The Senate passed four bills: a bill that allows companies that invest $100 million or more to come to or expand in Alabama and hire at least 100 workers to hold onto an existing tax credit for up to four years; a bill to allow private companies to have prisoners perform limited labor in the state, so long as no private sector jobs are lost; a bill to create a statewide database of requests for bids or proposals for public contracts by all governing bodies, except counties; a bill to authorize the United Ways of Alabama and its members to participate in the state health insurance program.

Wednesday: During this committee meeting day, The House Health Committee discussed but did not vote on a bill to require youth athletes to be held out of practice and competition for seven days after suffering a head injury. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved bills to ban texting and driving, to stiffen the penalties for cockfighting, to require demonstrators to be no closer than 1,000 feet of a funeral and to require sex offenders to register e-mail addresses and social networking sites to which they belong.

Thursday: The House completed work and passed a bill that if passed by the Senate and ultimately the voters will let certain businesses use income tax withholdings from employees for expansion or new construction. The measure is opposed by the Alabama Education Association. The Senate passed bills to allow legal notices be posted both online and in local newspapers, permit local law enforcement from municipalities with fewer than 19,000 residents to enforce the speed limit on interstate highways, and to require Alabama drivers to move one lane to the left if a utility vehicle is stopped while making repairs or doing official business.

2/17/12 Group Watch: Governor Proposes Tax Holiday on Storm Gear

Governor Robert Bentley announced during a press conference that next week is Severe Weather Preparedness Week. During the press conference, he also announced a plan for a once-a-year sales tax holiday on weather radios, flashlights, generators and other supplies needed for weather disasters. A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Emergency Management Agency said that emergency essentials such as bandages, disinfectant and other first-aid supplies might also being included in the list of approved items that would quality for a tax holiday. Alabama Education Association officials say they would look at the plan but do not favor any plan that will take money from education programs.

2/17/12 Group Watch: Rallies at the State House

Hundreds of citizens from across the state rallied in front of the State House calling attention to their causes. Nurses gathered for their annual Nurses at the Capitol event. Their goal was to bring attention to the challenges nurses face in their efforts to provide quality healthcare in Alabama. Members of the legislature and the governor addressed those assembled. Members of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice assembled to voice their concerns with the state’s immigration law. Organizers of the rally say they wanted to send a message of love and respect for immigrants. Legislators say a bill will be introduced in coming weeks to make subtle changes to the law.

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.

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