Legislators end session with Alabama Medicaid, payday loans, prisons as they found them

Alabama House chamberWhen legislators adjourned sine die, they left the state in important ways as they found it at the beginning of the legislative session in March.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Bills that would have funded major prison construction, increased money for Medicaid, reduced payday loan interest rates and changed teacher tenure and evaluation laws all were introduced but died during the session.

That’s not to say legislators did nothing. They passed an Education Trust Fund budget for fiscal year 2016-17 that gives most education workers 4 percent pay raises as well as expanding the state’s pre-K program. They passed a General Fund budget that gave most departments level funding with this year. They also passed Leni’s Law to allow people with debilitating medical conditions to possess a treatment derived from marijuana, and a bill to give more university boards of trustees limited powers to meet in secret, to name a few measures.

Here are a few key outcomes from the session:

Prison Construction: Much of the focus on the Legislature’s last day was on the governor’s plan to issue up to $800 million in bonds to build four new prisons and renovate or demolish old prisons. Legislators in three conference committee meetings tried to hash out their differences on the bill. Some were worried about potentially taking money from Veterans Affairs and the Department of Human Resources to pay off the bonds if the state did not see enough savings in operation costs. Others were concerned about hiring one company to design and build all the prisons or criticized the plan as too ambitious and wanted it scaled back. Despite warnings that the state is in danger of a federal judge ordering it to fix crowding and substandard facilities, legislators could not agree on a compromise, and the bill was allowed to die Wednesday evening.

Medicaid Funding: Legislators made a last-ditch effort to increase Medicaid funding by reallocating money from the BP oil spill settlement, but the effort failed. House members had amended the BP settlement bill to free up $70 million for Medicaid in fiscal year 2016-17, but they could not resolve their differences on the bill.  Medicaid officials have said they needed $85 million more than they were allocated this year just to keep services at current levels. Alabama Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar said Wednesday that failure of the bill makes serious cuts to services more likely. A lack of funding also could endanger the state’s plan to set up a system of regional, managed care organizations, a plan state officials had hoped would reduce costs for the program.  Learn more about the Medicaid reform plan:

A bill to expand Medicaid to cover anyone for whom federal matching money is available under the Affordable Care Act also died last week. The federal government would have paid the cost of expansion initially, with costs being gradually shifted to the state.

Leni’s Law: The governor signed Leni’s Law on Wednesday after it passed the Legislature last week. The bill opens the door for people with debilitating medical conditions to possess medically prescribed cannabidiol (CBD), a marijuana derivative usually used in oil form. At one point the bill had been substituted to lower the allowed level of the active ingredient THC from 3 percent to 1 percent and allow it only for use in patients with seizure disorders. But the bill was changed back to its original form.

The law is named for 4-year-old Leni Young, who was born with severe disabilities and suffered multiple seizures per day. The Youngs moved to Oregon last year to get legal access to the drug. The state previously allowed possession of CBD for patients enrolled in a study through UAB’s Department of Neurology.  Find a national report on laws governing marijuana derivatives for medical use here:

Education Bills: More than 50 education-related bills were introduced in the Legislature this session, and most of those died for lack of action. The Legislature did on its final day pass a law to allow the boards of more universities to meet behind closed doors when filling high-ranking positions. But it did not pass bills to authorize education savings accounts for parents of disabled children to withdraw their children from public schools and use 90 percent of the state education allocation for their children on education alternatives. It also did not pass bills that would have rolled back Alabama’s common core curriculum, changed the way the state superintendent is selected and abolish zero tolerance policies in schools.

The PREP Act, one of the most talked about education bills of the session, also died. Because of opposition, the sponsor shelved the controversial plan to rewrite the state’s tenure law and tie part of a teachers’ evaluation to student growth.

Payday Lending: At least six bills were introduced during the session in attempts to cut interest rates and lengthen the time a borrower has to repay payday and title loans. Only one remained alive when the Legislature went into session this week, and it had been changed to set a higher cap on fees and interest, 180 percent APR, and to remove a provision that would have allowed borrowers to make installment payments. It died on the last day, leaving in place the state’s current cap, which equals 455 percent APR.

Read about the fate of those and more bills on the BirminghamWatch Legislative Update.