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.

March 9, 2012 Group Watch: This Week in the Legislature

The Alabama Legislature returned to work on Tuesday, the 10th meeting day of the 2012 session and once again, had a full plate of bills to consider.

Tuesday: The House passed a bill to provide tax credits to businesses that invest in or locate in low-income areas. The measure provides an 8.3 percent tax credit per year for investing in impoverished areas for up to six years. The House also passed bills to authorize the president of the University of South Alabama to employ police officers for the campus; to require notification of affected persons when someone seeks youthful offender status if intentional serious injury or death has occurred; and to define basic telephone service consistent with federal regulation and statues. The Senate passed Sunset Legislation continuing the Public Service Commission before stalling tactics surfaced over a bill to provide stipends to classroom teachers for supplies. The Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee approved a proposed constitutional amendment to authorize the Ten Commandments to be displayed on state property and at public schools and a bill to define the kind of gift public officials, including teachers can receive as not worth more than $25.

Wednesday (a committee day):  Senator Vivian Figures got the Senate Health Committee to unanimously approve her bill to ban smoking in public places such as restaurants, hotels and motels, retail stores and schools and sports arenas. The bill would not apply to cigar factories, retail tobacco shops, cigar bars or private clubs. The Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee approved a House-passed bill that extends tax incentives to new jobs created in the aircraft industry. The House Education Policy Committee approved a bill requiring that school superintendents be appointed by local boards of education rather by election. The committee considered but did not act on a bill to reduce the mandatory age at which children are required to start school.

Thursday:  The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved a House-passed bill requiring motorists to move over when utility service vehicles are working and have their yellow lights flashing as well as a bill to require governmental and quasi-governmental entities to pay no more than the appraised price when acquiring property. There were three amendments to the bill in committee. The House passed bills to provide for a “One-Call Notification System” covering utility and underground facilities; to provide regulation in extraterritorial jurisdiction matters relating to county and municipal governments; and to require local boards of education to develop policy regarding concussion, youth athletes with concussions or head injury. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to provide every classroom teacher with $300 to buy supplies such as paper, pencils, chalk and hand soap. The Senate also voted to continue the Respiratory Therapy Board and the Board of Examiners of Assisted Living Administrators.

 

Group Watch 3/9/2012: Proposed Pension Changes

This week Governor Robert Bentley announced plans to overhaul the state’s pension system for state employees and teachers. The plan calls for setting a retirement age of 62 for most employees and 56 for law enforcement officers. Current employees can retire after 25 years no matter their age. The governor said the changes would go into effect in 2013 and would not affect current employees and that the move will save over $5 billion over 30 years.

Group Watch 3/9/2012: Court Blocks Sections of Immigration Law

On Thursday, the 11th circuit Court of Appeals issued an order temporarily blocking a section of the state’s immigration law that says courts can’t enforce contracts involving illegal immigrants and another section that makes it a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state. The court issued a temporary stay until the U. S. Supreme Court hears a similar challenge involving the Arizona law. Alabama’s law was patterned after the Arizona statute. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange reacted to the order saying that he strongly disagreed with the court’s decision and is prepared to vigorously defend the state’s immigration law in the courts.

March 2, 2012 Group Watch: This Week in the Legislature

The Alabama Legislature returned to work on Tuesday the 8th meeting day of the 2012 regular session and had a productive week.

The House passed bills to increase the incentives offered to companies to film movies and television shows in Alabama and to insure that nationally certified teachers receive a $5,000 bonus. They also passed bills to tax leaves that are used to wrap cigars, to allow a veterinarian to work in a charity clinic to spay and neuter dogs and cats if a veterinarian does not own the clinic, and to allow overtime pay to be considered when calculating a state employee’s pension. The Senate considered, but took no action on bills to exempt Health Care Sharing Ministries from being classified as insurance providers and to have write-in votes in elections be treated like provisional ballots and counted at a later date. They passed bills to criminalize the theft of law enforcement or corrections officer’s weapon and to switch injury and death compensation for the Alabama National Guard and State Defense Force members from the State Military Department to the State Employee Injury Compensation Program.

On Wednesday, a committee day, the House Ways and Means-Education Committee approved a bill to exempt items used to treat diabetes from state, county and municipal sales taxes. The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill making the continuous sexual abuse of a person beginning when the victim is under the age of 16 a crime. The House Education Policy Committee approved a bill to allow public high schools to provide a course in religion as an elective. The House State Government committee approved bills to permit the United Ways of Alabama to participate in the State Employee Insurance program. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to enhance penalties for criminals who use a computer to commit their crimes. The Senate Health Committee approved a bill to assure Medicaid patients have access to medicines for premature infants. They also held hearings on bills to ban indoor smoking in most places and to allow midwives to deliver babies. The senate Finance and taxation-Education Committee approved a bill to treat National Guard members as Alabama residents for the purposes of paying in-state tuition at state public colleges.

On Thursday, the 9th meeting day of the session, the Alabama Legislature gave final approval to a bill that offers tax incentives for creating new jobs in the coal industry. The House and Senate approved a conference committee version that now goes to the governor for his signature. This is the first of seven job incentive bills to achieve final passage. The House approved several bills of local application including a bill for Montgomery County that allows the probate judge to use recording fees for improvements to the record system. They also approved a general bill to regulate further the sale of metals such as copper and brass to recyclers. The measure passed after lengthy debate. The bill prohibits recyclers from buying from persons younger than 18 and provides criminal penalties for persons who damage certain metal items to include electric power equipment. The Senate passed several bills of local application before stalling on another local bill and adjourning. They passed no general bills on this day.

Group Watch 3/2/2012: Public Insurance Adjusters’ Licensing Bill Positive for Alabama Consumers

Alabama regulators and public adjuster groups are lobbying state lawmakers to pass a bill that would, for the first time, allow the state to license and monitor the actions of public adjusters. Insurer groups, however, are objecting to the proposal that they say will increase costs.

Unlike most states, Alabama law is silent on whether homeowners with a damage claim can enlist the service of a public adjuster to handle their claim as opposed to waiting for their insurance company’s adjuster. As a result, no one knows how many public adjusters are operating in the state or whether their actions are proper.

Ragan Ingram, Alabama Department of Insurance chief of staff, said the department occasionally gets complaints about public adjusters, but without a method to track their activities, regulators can take no action. For that reason, he said, the law is necessary. “If you are in the insurance business, we want to know about you so that if you are not doing something proper we can do something about it,” said Ingram.

Part of the impetus for the bill is the widespread damage caused in the state by a series of tornado outbreaks last year, which stressed the ability of private insurers’ adjusters to handle all the claims.

In January, state regulators said those tornados triggered more than 117,000 claims, resulting in $2.2 billion in damages. Public adjusters point to these figures as a reason that they should be allowed to operate in the state.

The National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters is backing the bill. “We very much support the bill, which will protect consumers,” Brian Goodman, general counsel for the public adjusters’ group, said. “It will protect us as an industry by making sure the insurance department can ensure the adjusters are acting in a proper and ethical way.”

The proposal to license public adjusters is not without its critics. Insurance groups say it would only drive up the price of insurance in the state.

Licensing public adjusters would do more harm than good when it comes to settling claims and holding down claims costs, according to Monique Kabitzke, state director representing the industry’s Property Casualty Insurers Association of American.

A PCI white paper on the issue said that although Alabama has a higher median home value than its neighboring state Mississippi, which has a public adjuster law, Alabama’s overall claims cost is 16 percent lower.

A 2008 National Association of Insurance Commissioners study found that the average homeowners premium in Mississippi equaled $980, compared to the $871 paid by Alabama homeowners, a 12.5 percent difference.

– article by Michael Adams, republished courtesy of the Insurance Journal 

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