Thursday, February 20, 2014
2014 - LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: WEEK SIX
The 2014 Alabama Legislative Session passed its midway point this week. The legislature met Tuesday and Thursday marking the 15th and 16th legislative days. That leaves just 14 legislative days remaining for the body to complete its work – with the most crucial tasks of passing the General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets still to be done.
With that in mind, perhaps the biggest news of the week was that the General Fund budget began its movement through the House of Representatives. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means-General Fund Committee approved a General Fund budget that closely follows the one proposed by Governor Robert Bentley.
Under the budget that was approved by the committee, most agencies are level funded. Medicaid, which continues to be both the largest GF expenditure and the biggest concern, will receive an increase in funding of approximately $70 to $685 Million. This would be roughly $15 million less than sought by Dr. Don Williamson, who is charged with Medicaid’s ongoing reorganization and its switch from a fee-for-service model to a capitation payments model. Dr. Williamson has stated that he can make the amount allocated work, and continues to look at ways to save money including new ways to administer the prescription drug program for Medicaid.
Corrections, another major cause for concern within the GF budget, would be level-funded, which would be approximately $42 million less than what was sought by the agency. Of major concern for the Department is the current U.S. Department of Justice investigation regarding conditions at Tutwiler prison for women that may require expenditures by the agency to upgrade the facility. House Budget Chairman, Representative Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), has indicated that he will continue to work to find additional funds that could increase available funds for Corrections.
The total GF budget approved by the committee comes to approximately $1.82 billion for fiscal year 2015. Based on the budget approved by the committee, it appears that cost-of-living increase for state employees are not likely.
The education budget is expected to begin moving in the Senate next week. It is expected to be in the Senate Finance and Taxation – Education Committee on Wednesday. Senator Trip Pitman (R-Daphne) chairs the Committee. Senator Pittman has indicated that the Legislature’s version of the Education will likely be slightly less than the $6 billion budget proposed by Governor Bentley.
On Tuesday, the Senate carried over the Taxpayer Bill of Rights II, or TBOR II for the second time. The bill would create an independent tax appeal process in Alabama, and is a legislative priority for nearly every business advocacy group in the state. The bill, sponsored by Representative Paul DeMarco (R-Homewood) is also part of the House Republican Caucus Agenda and passed the House early in the session. Senator Bryan Taylor (R-Prattville) is handling the bill in the Senate. It is unclear when or if the bill may be brought back before the Senate for consideration.
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the “Alabama Consumer Lawsuit Lending Act”, which would regulate the practice known as lawsuit lending. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) would regulate loans that can be taken out by plaintiffs in pending lawsuits. Those loans are “backed” by anticipated future settlements or jury awards. The legislation would cap the interest rate on such loans at 10%, and would subject to the lending companies to state licensure requirements and Banking Department regulations.
On Thursday, the Senate gave its final approval to Senate Bill 79, sponsored by Senator Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery). The bill would put in place a mandatory bid preference for in-state companies that are within 5 percent of the lowest bid on a contract. The bill had been amended in Committee to apply only to contracts of $100,000 or less. That bill has been sent to the House Committee on State Government, which previously approved similar legislation sponsored by Representative Mark Tuggle (R-Alexander City).
Parts of this week, both in Committees and on the floor of the House, were spent on generally popular socially conservative issues. For example, on Wednesday the House Health Committee held public hearings on several bills that dealt with abortion, including a bill that would prohibit an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected and one that would expand the waiting period from 24 to 48 hours. The Committee did not take action on the measures, which will be voted on next week. On Thursday, following prolonged – and humorous – debate, the House passed a bill proposing a Constitutional Amendment that, if approved, would allow posting of the 10 Commandments in public buildings.
Both bodies appear to be operating smoothly thus far. Legislation addressing the Birmingham Water Works, which has the potential to disrupt that relative harmony, was before a House Committee on Wednesday. In all, four bills seeking to make changes to the Water Works have been introduced. The bill heard in the House Health Committee on Wednesday is sponsored by Representative Jim McClendon (R-Springville), the Chair of the Committee. That bill, which would expand membership of the board to include representatives from Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, St. Clair and Walker Counties, is expected to be voted on by the Committee next week.
The House will convene on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 1 p.m. The Senate will begin its session that day at 2 p.m. Next week is anticipated to be a three meeting day week. If that proves to be the case, the Legislature will have used 19 of the available 30 meeting days by the end of the day next Thursday. That leaves only 11 remaining meeting days.