July 2012 Group Watch: Alabama Judge Halts City’s Private Probation Practice

A judge in Columbiana (south of Birmingham) has temporarily shut down what he called a “debtors prison” run by the municipal court in Harpersville. Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Harrington said the Harpersville Municipal Court repeatedly violated the rights of defendants that appeared before it. According to the preliminary injunction, defendants who were not able to immediately pay court-imposed fines and fees were turned over to Judicial Corrections Services. Many were later tossed in jail, which led to more charges that led to more fines, more court costs and more debt.  The order came as a result of a 2010 lawsuit.

July 2012 Group Watch: Alabama Education Fund to Avoid Cuts

The Alabama Education Trust Fund will collect enough state income taxes and other levies to meet its spending target for the fiscal year and avoid cuts in budgeted spending from proration. The trust fund collected $4.25 billion in October through June, an increase of $269.9 million or 6.8 percent, from the same period a year earlier, according to state finance officials. Tax collections by the trust fund, the main source of state tax dollars for public schools and colleges, need to grow by 5.6 percent in this fiscal year, which ends September 30, to reach this year’s budgeted spending. Lawmakers in May approved spending an additional $40 million from the trust fund in this fiscal year, putting it in a reserve, and spending it in fiscal 2013. Gross sales tax collections before payment of school bond debt and other deductions increased by 5.5 percent. Gross individual income tax collections before tax refunds increased by 4.3 percent. Net combined individual and corporate income tax collections were up 10.9 percent. According to finance officials, revenue collected by the General Fund increased by 21.8 percent from the same period a year earlier. The General Fund received a $266.4 million windfall from the Alabama Trust Fund, which gets most of the natural gas royalties paid the state by companies that pumped natural gas offshore.

June 2012 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

Summer is here and session is out, but the Governor’s still staying busy.

Governor Signs Bill to Get Schools to Buy Locally: Governor Robert Bentley has signed into law a bill designed to make it easier for local farmers to sell produce to the state’s public schools. The Farm to School Procurement Act requires the state Agriculture Department and the State Department of Education to investigate the potential for schools to purchase local farm products. The new law also calls for schools to provide training to lunchroom staff on how to prepare the fresh food. The bill’s sponsor says the law will help children receive healthier meals and provide farmers with a new market to sell their produce.

Governor Promotes Homeowner’s Insurance Laws: Governor Bentley recently visited the Gulf Coast to promote new laws designed to make homeowner’s insurance more affordable after hurricanes drove up prices. One new law provides tax credits to insurance companies that write policies in certain areas of the state’s two coastal counties, Baldwin and Mobile. Another of the new laws allows Alabama-based companies to make new out-of-state investments, which is supposed to make operating in Alabama more attractive. One of the laws allows a homeowner to cancel a roofing contract within 10 days of signing the contract if the homeowner’s insurance company says it will not cover part or all of the cost. Insurance companies will be required to provide certain cost and rate information to the state Insurance Department, who will make it available online.

June 2012 Group Watch: Attorney General at Religious Freedom Rally

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange was the keynote speaker at a June 8 rally in Birmingham sponsored by an organization that opposes the Obama administration’s mandate that employers provide workers with birth control measures. Also speaking at the noon rally was Michael Warsaw, president of the Eternal Word Television Network. The director of the Birmingham Stand Up For Religious Freedom organization, Jim Pinto, said the rally was one of 156 similar events held on the same day around the country.

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.

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