June 2012 Group Watch: Alabama Unemployment Rate up to 7.4 Percent

State officials announced that the unemployment rate rose from 7.2 percent in April to 7.4 percent in May. The slight increase is being attributed education employees who aren’t working in the summer months and to new high school and college graduates entering the workforce. The state’s unemployment rate a year ago was 9.3 percent and hit 10.0 percent in July 2011. In recent weeks, Governor Bentley has traveled the state announcing new and expanding industry that will bring thousands of new jobs to the state.

May 24, 2012 Group Watch: Regular & Special Sessions End

Wednesday, May 16, was the final day of the 2012 regular session. The House joined the Senate in giving final approval to bills making several revisions in Alabama’s immigration law and to raise fees for court cases. They also gave final approval to legislation combining the Department of Industrial Relations and the Department of Labor. They blocked action on a bill that would allow Jefferson County to enact an occupational tax. The Senate joined the House in approving a $1.67 billion General Fund and $5.4 billion education budget for the upcoming fiscal year.  They approved bills to raise the income level where state employees have to file annual financial disclosure statements from $50,000 to $75,000 and to provide $44.5 million to the Department of Corrections to help finish this budget year. The Senate confirmed Brian Christopher Hamilton and Chip Hazelrig, both of Birmingham, as trustees for the University of Montevallo. The Senate also gave final approval to a bill relating to one-call notification for utility contractors.

Governor Robert Bentley called the Legislature into special session on Thursday, May 17, to address reapportionment of themselves, to address revenue measures to insure adequate funding of Medicaid and other General Fund agencies, and to address the Children First appropriations. In the pre-dawn hours on the morning of the sixth day of the special session, the House and Senate gave final approval to bills reapportioning the Legislature, proposing a constitutional amendment to allow the state to issue more bonds to pay incentives to new industries, moving part of the state’s use tax collections from the education budget to the General Fund and approving the allocations of tobacco revenues to Children First agencies. The Children First appropriation includes funding for the state Medicaid agency. Before adjourning, the House praised retiring clerk Greg Pappas and elected Jeff Woodard to replace him.

5/24/12 Group Watch: School Age Lowered

Governor Robert Bentley has signed legislation that requires Alabama children to begin attending school or be home schooled at 6 years old. The mandatory school age had been 7. The new law allows children to still begin school at 7 if their parents make a request in writing to their local school officials. A statewide survey of schools found that about 50 students start at age 7 each year.

5/24/2012 Group Watch: Rally Redo

Protesters surrounded entrances to the State House as the House and Senate debated changes to Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation immigration law. Seven of the protesters were arrested after they tried to block entry to each chamber of the Legislature. Four were cuffed outside the Senate, and three more were detained when they tried to block the hallway to the House chamber. A group of about 25 protestors sang spirituals and chanted slogans in the halls near the House and Senate.

5/24/2012 Group Watch: 2012 Regular Session Recap

One of the primary responsibilities of the Legislature is to pass budgets for the operation of state government and public education. They accomplished that feat on the last day of the regular session with the passage of an education budget. After much debate, the final bill reduces spending for public schools and universities but not at the expense of teacher layoffs or larger class sizes. It also sustains funding for successful programs such as the Alabama Reading Initiative, distant learning and pre-K. Likewise, passage of the General Fund budget with plans to sustain vital services in the Departments of Mental Health and Human Resources was essential. They also had to fund the prison system and the state Medicaid Agency. In order to accomplish these goals, the Legislature passed a bill increasing court fees as well as a constitutional amendment to allow the use of nearly $146 million from a state savings account. The voters will decide this fall on the latter. The governor has stated he will sign both budget bills.

May 11, 2012 Group Watch: This Week in the Legislature

Tuesday, the 27th day of the 2012 regular session: The House Ways and Means-Education Committee discussed, but took no action on, the $5.5 billion education budget, but approved a bill to provide tax breaks for developing large tourist attractions. The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to establish the crime of home invasion. The Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee approved a $1.4 billion general fund budget. The Senate Job Creation and Economic Development Committee passed a bill to legalize making beer and wine at home. The House approved bills to allow the state to opt out of providing insurance coverage for abortions under a federal health care plan, to cutoff state pensions for public employees who commit crimes related to their governmental positions and to create a new pension plan for new public hire effective January 1, 2013. They also approved a package of bills aimed at making insurance for homeowners affordable and a bill to require school bus drivers to undergo additional physical and medical testing before getting behind the wheel. The Senate passed bills to clarify that the state’s health insurance program for educators can negotiate favorable prescription drug rates, making it a crime to impersonate a judge, and to renew the state’s severance tax on coal.  They also passed bills to provide tax credits to businesses that invest in poor neighborhoods and to allow the state transportation director to hire three deputy directors and a chief engineer outside the state merit system. They concurred with the House on a bill to provide $300 for supplies to every classroom teacher, but delayed action on a bill to create a state health insurance exchange as part of the federal healthcare law.

Wednesday, the 28th day of the regular session: The House Ways and Means Education Committee adopted a substitute budget for the Education Trust Fund, and the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment approved new legislative district maps for the House and Senate. The House approved bills to give the Alabama Sentencing Commission more power to set punishment standards for non-violent crimes, to deposit 10 percent of certain petroleum inspection fees in the Agriculture Fund, and to create tax credits for businesses investing in impoverished communities. They also passed bills to require motorists to move over one lane for stopped utility vehicles, to require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient centers and to allow beer to be sold in 25.4 ounce bottles. The Senate passed bills setting the maximum amount public officials can accept as gifts under the ethics law as items valued at $25 and to provide funding for the Domestic Violence Program and the Children First Appropriation. They discussed, but did not vote on, a bill to amend the state Immigration Act, but voted to reject repealing the law.

Thursday, the 29th meeting day of the session: The House Ways and Means-Education Committee carried over a Senate-passed charter schools bill, effectively killing it for this session. Read more here. The House passed bills to eliminate duplicate campaign finance reporting requirements, to make it a crime to possess a cell phone with the intent to deliver it to a prison inmate, and to authorize the state to reimburse counties for the expenses of running an election. They also gave final approval to a budget for the Education Trust Fund and bills to require metal recyclers to maintain additional records and to register with the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center as well as a bill that creates penalties for persons who possess certain stolen metals. Another bill given final approval provides relief for joint filers when one of them has liability that the other has become responsible for. The House changes to the budget were rejected by the Senate, and it now goes to a conference committee to resolve the differences. The Senate passed a $1.4 billion General Fund budget, which also appears headed to a conference committee. The Senate also passed bills to provide tax incentives for tourist attractions that locate in the state, to allow alcoholic beverage sales at state parks within a lodge, to tax cigar wrapping, and to extend a moratorium on solid waste landfills to May 31, 2014.

5/11/2012 Group Watch: Call for Higher Education Standards

State School Superintendent Tommy Bice is recommending a complete overhaul of the state’s testing program. Bice says it is time to raise performance standards. His proposed changes include requiring higher minimum scores necessary for a student to pass and adding more components that consider more than multiple-choice questions. He says the state should not allow students to reach eighth grade before their weaknesses are identified and remedied. According to Bice, while students may be meeting expectations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the law does not always translate into success. Read more here.

5/11/2012 Group Watch: Promoting Alabama Seafood

Gulf Coast promoters are launching a new marketing campaign to increase sales of Alabama seafood. The Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission is kicking off a three-year, $5 million marketing drive to increase demand for Alabama’s catch. The ads particularly target state consumers and restaurants across the region. The campaign is being unveiled on today and is funded with grant money from BP.

May 4, 2012 Group Watch: This Week in the Legislature

Tuesday, the 24th meeting day of the 2012 regular session: The House passed bills to change the mandatory school attendance age from 7 to 6 years old, to allow schools to use electronic devices like Kindle in the place of textbooks and to establish tax incentives for tourist attractions. They also approved bills to require health insurance companies to offer coverage for certain treatments for autism and to create the Alabama Cyber Technology Authority to encourage the cooperation of higher education, business and government in developing and supporting cyber technology projects in Alabama. The Senate joined the House in giving final approval to a bill saying schools can’t start more than two weeks before Labor Day and must end before Memorial Day and passing an education budget. They also passed bills to provide tax breaks for developing tourism destinations and updates of two articles of the state Constitution dealing with corporations and banking. The proposed constitutional amendments will be on the ballot in November for a vote of the people.

Wednesday, a committee day and the 25th meeting day of the session: The House Health Committee approved bills to make it harder to get an abortion in Alabama. The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved a bill to extend the period for renewing a driver’s license to six months before the license is due to expire. The House Ways and Means Education Committee approved a bill changing the way Auburn trustees are selected. The Senate Health Committee held a public hearing but did not vote on a bill saying life begins at fertilization of an egg and implantation in the womb. The House approved bills to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in the lodge of Joe Wheeler State Park and to establish a council to consider the problem of elder abuse. The Senate joined the House in giving final approval to a bill to allow public employees’ overtime pay to count toward their state pensions and approved a bill to legalize charter schools and give traditional public schools more flexibility in following state regulations.

Thursday, the 26th meeting day of the session: The House spent much of the day stalled by the dilatory tactics of Democratic members trying to slow down consideration of various measures. By the midnight adjournment, they passed bills to provide Alabama restaurants incentives for buying products from the state, to allow the state’s Parking Deck Authority to build a new parking deck for the Gordon Persons Office Building for state employees in Montgomery, and to allow spouses of military service members to expedite any professional licenses or certificates when the spouse is transferred to Alabama. They also approved a bill raising court fees and to require insurance companies to more clearly describe to homeowners what their policies do and don’t do. The Senate approved bills creating the crime of looting during a state of emergency, to make it a crime for a daycare worker to leave a child unattended in a vehicle, and to create the crime of computer tampering. They also approved bills to make it a misdemeanor offense to use the Internet or email to impersonate another person with the intent of harming, intimidating, threatening or defrauding someone and to give new taxing authority to the Jefferson County Commission to address the county’s bankruptcy.

5/4/2012 Group Watch: Senate Approved Education Budget

On Tuesday, the Senate approved an education budget that reduces spending on public schools and colleges, cuts teaching positions and increases class sizes. The Senate voted 31-4 for the $5.5 billion budget for the upcoming school year. It’s about $150 million (or 2.7 percent) less than the current year’s budget. The Senate budget chair says the budget increases funding for school supplies and textbooks and maintains funding for successful programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative, distance learning and pre-K. The budget now goes to the House, which is expected to make some changes to the Senate-passed document.

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