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Senate confirmed Burke to be district judge in North Alabama

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Alabama’s senior U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby on Thursday released the following statement regarding the Senate confirmation of Judge Liles Burke to be a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Alabama. Burke was nominated to the judgeship by President Trump in September 2017.

“I am proud to have voted tonight to confirm Judge Liles Burke to be a District Judge for the Northern District of Alabama,” said Senator Shelby. “He is extremely qualified for this high honor, having served as a judge in Alabama for over a decade. I congratulate Judge Burke on this prestigious achievement and am confident he will serve our nation well.”

Judge Liles Burke currently serves as an Associate Judge in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. He was named to the court by Governor Bob Riley in 2011 and elected without opposition to a full term on the Court in 2012. Judge Burke has authored the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals in more than 1200 cases. During his years on the bench, he has served as President of the Alabama Appellate Judges Association and has been officer in both the Alabama District Judges Association and the Alabama Juvenile Judges Association.

Prior to serving on the Court of Appeals, Judge Burke was appointed to be a District Judge for Marshall County. Following this appointment, he was elected to a full term on the district court beginning in 2008 without opposition. During his time as a trial judge, he created Marshall County’s first family drug court and started one of the state’s first domestic violence courts.

In addition to his experience in the courtroom, Judge Burke serves as the leader of the Marshall County United Way fund drive, City of Arab Chamber of Commerce, and the Arab Historical Preservation Committee. He is also a Rotarian and alumnus of Leadership Alabama, an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the Alabama Army National Guard, and an assistant organist at First United Methodist Church of Arab.

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Following Thursday’s vote, five Alabama judicial nominees, initially nominated by President Trump in 2017, have been confirmed. One 2018 nominee still awaits confirmation, and one awaits a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

Historic obstruction by Democrats has occurred during this administration’s attempt to confirm judges, the Senator’s Office office. The previous six presidents combined faced a total of 24 procedural votes on judicial nominees while President Trump has faced more than 100 during his first two years in office.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Can Alabama’s one-party system deliver for all the people?

Bill Britt

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Alabama is a one-party state.

For 136 years, the Democratic Party was the sole governing body which ruled the state under a one-party system. Voters switched sides in 2010, and now there is one-party control by Republicans.

Of the many problems created by a one-party system are the elimination of checks and balances, disregard for the minority population, a tendency for tolerating corruption within the controlling ranks and ignoring best practices because they may be ideas that come from the opposition.

Alabama is in dire need of men and women in positions of political power and influence who can see beyond the second ripple in the pond and who will do what is right, not based on party, but a deep abiding loyalty to our state.

Far too often policy items are ill-conceived, half-baked-by-products of some other state’s solutions or a national narrative that isn’t in the best interest of the people of our state.

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Best policy is written using fact-based information tailored to the needs of the state.

As lawmakers gear up for the 2019 Legislative Session, it might be fair to ask, “What do in-coming Republican lawmakers stand for today?”

One freshman legislator recently said that he is coming to Montgomery to help President Trump build the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Far be it from me to question the gentleman’s motivation or IQ, but if I’m correct, the state Legislature does not have any say over a border wall, unless he thinks we need one in Mobile.

We have some excellent women and men at the State House, but there are a few who have no business deciding what’s for lunch, much less what is best for the people.

The state has many challenges which include weak income growth which is only improving because the national economy is rolling along, prisons that are a disgrace and under federal lawsuits, an infrastructure which is crumbling and self-dealing that is on the rise.

Republicans, like the Democrats before them, have not adequately addressed these systemic problems because with one-party rule, no one is pushing them to do better.

Perhaps the lack of real change is understandable given that for six of the last eight years, the Republican-led government was controlled by a delusional governor and a crooked Speaker of the House.

Former Speaker Mike Hubbard is going to prison, Gov. Robert Bentley is out of office and still out of his mind, so going forward, the state will know if Republicans can actually lead.

Republicans have a chance to lead; will they?

Without a strong opposition party, Republicans, like Democrats of the past, have no reason to compromise or build a coalition between the two parties. Therefore, in many instances, what is best for the state is hampered by groupthink or a slavish devotion to a national party orthodoxy that offers scant solutions to Alabama’s most pressing problems.

The state’s voting population is arguably at 60/40, with Republicans holding a commanding majority over Democrats as evident by the state’s last general election.

In his essay “Party dominance ‘theory’: Of what value?” Raymond Suttner notes, “The notion of a dominant party, usually described by those who deploy the concept, as a theory or a system, refers to a category of parties/political organizations that have successively won election victories and whose future defeat cannot be envisaged or is unlikely for the foreseeable future.”

Republicans occupy all 29 statewide offices and control more than two-thirds of both the House and the Senate; Alabama is a one-party state.

If the state succeeds, Republicans can take credit. If it continues near the bottom in every meaningful measure of success, then they should be held accountable.

One-party government is fraught with problems, not the less of which is a failure to deliver good government for all the people because they don’t have to worry about reelection.

Alabama should expect more, but do we?

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Legislature

Sen. Bobby Singleton to replace Sen. Billy Beasley as Alabama Senate minority leader

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Bobby Singleton speaks on the floor of the Alabama Senate. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

The small cohort of Democrats left in the Alabama Senate has elected a new minority leader.

The eight members of the Democratic caucus elected Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, to serve as the Senate minority leader. Singleton, who was elected to the Senate in 2005, will replace outgoing minority leader, Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton.

Beasley will stay in leadership as the deputy Senate minority leader. Beasley was elected to the Senate in 2010.

The Democrats’ new leadership will serve through 2022.

“I just want to thank my colleagues for having the confidence in me to be able to lead them for the next four years,” Singleton said in a statement. “As the minority leader we will be looking at a robust agenda; not just for the Democrats, but for the State of Alabama. Hopefully, we can work across the aisle with the majority. I look forward to working with Senate Majority Leader Sen. Greg Reed and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh.”

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Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, will serve as minority caucus chair, and first-term lawmaker Sen. Malika Sanders Fortier, D-Selma, will serve as vice chair.

“I look forward to working with fellow senators and my Democratic colleagues as we establish goals and set priorities to represent our constituency and the state,” Coleman-Madison said. “As chair, one of my goals, in collaboration with Democratic Senators, is to start legislative outreach to not only hear from citizens, but to educate and inform them on issues facing the state. We have a strong caucus; each member brings unique talents to the legislative body, and I am honored to serve.”

As Democrats head into the next four years, they’ll face an empowered Republican majority with a slightly expanded majority. Republicans gained one seat and now control 27 of the 35 seats in the upper chamber. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is expected to remain in his post, and Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, will remain as majority leader.

Marsh presided over the Senate last year in the absence of a lieutenant governor, but Lt. Gov.-elect Will Ainsworth will now take on that role.

The Senate pro tem congratulated Singleton on his election, saying the two have a good working relationship.

“There are many tough issues facing the Alabama Senate in the year to come and I look forward to working with Senator Singleton as we develop legislation that improves the lives of all Alabamians,” Marsh said in a statement.

Downstairs in the lower chamber, Republicans control 77 of 105 House seats, gaining 5 seats in the November general election. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, is all but assured to retain his job after Republicans unanimously nominated him for another term.

The Legislative Black Caucus elected Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, as their chair. The caucus includes both House members and senators, and Figures will serve in that position until 2020, when a House member will take over the alternating role.

“I am very humbled and honored to have been elected to serve as Chair of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus by my colleagues,” Figures said. “I am very excited to work with all members to develop an agenda with goals and objectives to move Alabama forward. Together, we will explore all opportunities as we strive to raise all boats so that we can be the best that we can be.”

 

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Economy

As lawmakers consider new gas tax, Alabama remains last in per capita state, local tax collection

Chip Brownlee

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As state lawmakers prepare to consider a gas tax increase during the next legislative session, a new report from the Public Affairs Research Council shows Alabama’s state and local governments collect less in taxes per capita than any other state in the country.

Alabama has been behind in tax collection since the early 1990s, according to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, which has produced an analysis of Alabama’s tax revenues since 1988.

“This is not a new finding,” the PARCA report says. “This has been true since the early the 1990s. And it underlies the difficulties we face when trying to provide to our citizens the level of government services enjoyed by citizens in other states.”

Lawmakers have flirted with a gas tax increase in recent years, and proponents say it is imperative to raise revenues to invest in Alabama’s aging infrastructure.

In Alabama, the gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1992, when lawmakers added 5 cents to the gallon, and the state ranks 35th in per capita state and local collections on motor fuel.

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Several neighboring states have increased their motor fuels taxes in recent years, leading to Alabama’s rank declining relative to other Southeastern states. In 2016, only South Carolina collected less in motor fuels taxes, but South Carolina will likely surpass Alabama in the next few years because it adopted a plan recently to gradually increase its gas tax, and its rate now exceeds Alabama’s.

It isn’t just the gas tax that hasn’t really been adjusted in years.

Alabama’s low taxes — while they may be a positive for your pocketbook — are often the single largest contributor to near-perpetual budget crises in Montgomery, placing a significant barrier for lawmakers as they balance the two state budgets every year. It’s a constitutionally mandated requirement.

While budgeting over the last two years in Alabama has been a smoother process — largely because the state has had billions on hand from a settlement with BP Oil over the 2011 Deepwater Horizon oil spill —Alabama is expected to face another budget shortfall this year.

The last major budget shortfall in 2015 led to an increase of some taxes, including the cigarette tax and taxes on nursing home beds — but property and income taxes haven’t moved much in years. Alabama’s extremely low property taxes are the main reason tax collections fall below other states.

If Alabama’s per capita property tax collections matched the average of other Southeastern states, state and local governments would have an additional $2 billion — yes, billion with a “b” — to spend on services and education, and the overall tax revenue per capita would be in the middle of other Southern states.

Though Alabamians are some of the most averse to taxes, the meager tax collections result in a strained pool of money for popular public services like schools, roads, courts, health care and public safety.

While Alabama has avoided passing general tax increases, it has turned to selective sales taxes. Alabama ranks high in per capita collections on alcoholic drinks (No. 3 in the U.S.) and on public utilities (No. 5) in the U.S.

PARCA conducted the analysis of Alabama’s tax revenues by relying on the U.S. Census Bureau and its annual survey of state and local governments across the country. The Census Bureau data makes it possible to compare the finances of state and local governments across the 50 states.

This year’s data is from 2016, the latest available, and tax rates haven’t changed much at all since then.

State and local spending are considered together because states vary in how they decide to divide up the taxation and collection responsibilities for funding public services and government.

Alabama has the lowest property taxes, both state and local, in the country, ranking 50th of the states. Alabama’s property taxes fund education, state and county general funds and county road and bridge funds.

The base of wealth in Alabama is also smaller than most other states, which also contributes to lower taxes. In Alabama, taxes amount to 8.2 percent of the total personal income earned by state residents, when comparing total personal income to total state and local taxes collected. Tennessee and Florida have lower tax rates as a percentage of percental income, and Georgia and Florida have lower taxes as a percentage of GDP.

Alabama and its local governments have developed a reliance on the sales tax and already has some of the highest sales tax rates in the country, ranking 29th in the U.S. And unlike other states, our sales tax applies to groceries and medications.

Sales taxes are often considered regressive because they more heavily affect low-income individuals than high-income individuals. Alabama is one of three states that continue to apply sales tax fully to groceries without providing offsetting relief for low- and moderate-income families.

At the same time, Alabama’s sales tax is not as broad as other states and doesn’t apply to most services. Despite higher taxes, Alabama’s sales tax isn’t as productive as other states.

Alabama sales tax applies to almost all sales of goods, but it does not apply the tax to most kinds of business, professional, computer, personal or repair services. And in recent years, the economy has moved more toward the consumption of those services, lessening the effectiveness of Alabama’s sales tax.

In 2016, the last year the Census Bureau performed its analysis, state and local governments collected a total of $15.6 billion in taxes or $3,203 per resident. Across the U.S., the median per capita value for state and local taxes was more than $1,281 higher at $4,484.

If Alabama collected taxes at the per capita rate of the median state, local and state governments in Alabama would have an additional $6.2 billion to spend on building roads, providing public safety protection, operating courts, supporting schools and colleges and maintaining parks and libraries.

Even if national comparisons are ignored, Alabama stands out among other Southern states when it comes to revenue.

Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee all collect significantly more taxes per capita.

If Alabama collected taxes at the same rate as Louisiana, for example, the state would have about $3.2 billion more in tax revenue. If it collected the same amount of revenue as Arkansas, it would have $3.7 billion more.

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The full report is available here.

 

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Governor

Should Medicaid expansion be on the 2019 legislative agenda? Experts say it has to be

Chip Brownlee

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In Alabama, Republican politicians have ignored the question of Medicaid expansion or rejected it outright, refusing to bring the issue to the floor of the state Legislature, but an outgoing Republican senator and hospital officials are pushing for it to be on the 2019 legislative agenda.

Voters appear to be on the side against expansion, having overwhelmingly rejected Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox, who based a large part of his campaign on Medicaid expansion.

Outside of the Yellowhammer State, though, election day shaped up to be a landmark moment for Medicaid expansion. More states are set to join Medicaid expansion in the next year than in any year since the expansion option created under the Affordable Care Act first became available in 2014.

That momentum in favor of expansion has yet to reach Alabama, which remains as one of the 14 states where politicians have refused to expand the health insurance program for low-income people.

“As we’ve seen more and more states expand, we still haven’t had this issue discussed on the floor of the Alabama Legislature, and we’re now six years down the road, and it looks like we’re emerging to be one of the few hold-out states,” said David Becker, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health.

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Support for the program is spreading to more conservative areas. Voters in three deeply red states — Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — approved ballot initiatives requiring their state to expand Medicaid, and three other states — Kansas, Wisconsin and Maine — elected Democratic governors who are likely to push for expansion.

In Maine, their newly elected Democratic governor is likely to implement a Medicaid expansion plan put on hold by their current Republican governor after voters approved a ballot initiative last year.

Voters’ decisions at ballot boxes in those seven states come after Virginia’s Legislature earlier this year chose to support expansion, meaning eight states will likely expand or begin expanding their Medicaid programs over the next year. Virginia is already enrolling new beneficiaries.

Despite what appears to be a solid opposition among Alabama Republicans, some public health experts and hospital officials, including the Alabama Hospital Association, are issuing dire calls for a renewed debate.

“Medicaid expansion is the one thing the state can do to prevent more hospital closures, loss of jobs, and cutbacks on services,” said Danne Howard, the association’s chief policy officer.

The association — and the more than 100 individual hospitals it represents across Alabama, many of them rural and some of them teetering on the edge of closing — view the situation as so dire that the association plans to launch a renewed effort early next year to bring the discussion back to the forefront ahead of the 2019 legislative session, when a new class of state lawmakers will take office.

“It will impact or it will help rural hospitals because there are a large number of uninsured and unhealthy people in rural Alabama,” Howard said. “Alabama is predominantly a rural state, and between Medicare, the uninsured and Medicaid, that is the significant volume of patients in rural hospitals.”

A ‘critical’ need

Rural hospitals across the country, but particularly in non-expansion states like Alabama, are closing at an alarming rate, largely because an influx of money from more folk covered by Medicaid was intended to offset cuts to Medicare reimbursements built into the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law.

With no offset there, hospitals have lost money. A solution needs to come quick, experts have said.

Six rural Alabama hospitals have closed since 2011, and more were closing before that year.

Though a few have reopened because of local tax increases, the situation could get worse. Nearly 90 percent of the remaining rural hospitals in Alabama are bleeding money — operating at a loss and routinely cutting back on staff and services, according to the association.

“Hospitals have been living on their reserves, and those reserves are nearing the end, and that’s why you are seeing more hospitals close,” Howard said, noting that a number of issues have led to the dire straits for hospitals, though all of the issues are related to low reimbursement rates one way or another.

Some Republicans have seen the negative impacts in their districts.

“We can’t continue to close rural hospitals and devastate rural Alabama with inadequate health care,” said retiring Sen. Gerald Dial, a Republican who chaired the Senate’s health committee for two years.

Earlier this year, Dial published op-eds in Alabama newspapers calling on the Republican-led Legislature to consider Medicaid expansion. He’s one of the few Republicans who has called for at least a partial expansion under revised rules.

“They can fund this,” Dial told APR. “This is so critical.”

Rural hospitals, the ones in the most danger of closing, are often the only place within a timely distance where rural residents — like those in Dial’s east Alabama district — can get care.

“It even affects the farmers,” Dial said. “If a farmer is out there, and he breaks a leg or gets an arm cut off, is he going to die before he can get 70 miles to a hospital? Or can you run him 10 miles down the road and get him to a hospital and get him some care? It affects every one of us.”

The potential for economic growth

There are some positives in the conversation. When Becker and his partner at the UAB School of Public Health released their economic analysis in 2012, they were tailoring it for a particular audience.

“We wrote this report kind of realizing the audience who would be receiving it,” Becker said in an interview. “That we kind of understand the political environment of Alabama, and tugging at the heartstrings might not be the most effective strategy in making the case for expansion.”

Their report found that expansion would cost the state about $770 million over the first seven years in costs, but could potentially result in $20 billion in economic growth over the same time period.

Beginning in 2014, the federal government would have financed 100 percent of the costs for those made newly eligible for Medicaid until 2016.

After that, the federal match phases down to 90 percent by 2020, where it will stay, meaning for every dollar the state spends on new enrollees, it would get $9 in return from the federal government.

Though Becker’s report is now six years old, the general takeaways still apply, he said. “The tax revenues generated from expansion would exceed the cost to the state, and so in that sense, it was just sort of a win-win proposition,” Becker said.

Becker’s analysis found that after the first year of expansion, Alabama could likely finance its portion of the new costs with the new tax revenues that would result. The hospital association and Dial have made similar arguments.

“We’re losing about $700 million (in federal matches) in Alabama every year because we haven’t expanded, and we continue to see our rural hospitals close,” Dial said. “That just devastates that opportunity to have economic expansion in rural areas if you don’t have adequate health care. Somebody else is getting our $700 million, and we’re not saving the taxpayers any money.”

For Howard, it isn’t just about the potential for economic growth; it’s about preventing economic losses.

“The fact is hospitals are amongst the top employers in this state. In most rural communities, they are the top employer,” Howard said. “If you look at the health care benefits alone, that ought to be enough to drive the right decision; however, it’s not been. So you have to look at the economics.”

If more hospitals close in rural areas, Howard said the economic impact could be devastating.

“Rural communities cannot continue to thrive, cannot attract businesses, can’t retain the businesses they have now with a hospital failing,” Howard said, adding that the loss of a hospital can further exacerbate population loss, too.

“Young couples are wanting to start families, and they know they are going to have to drive over an hour to a hospital when it’s time to deliver that baby, why would they stay in that community?” Howard said. “You don’t have the prospect of better-paying jobs because you can’t attract business because there’s not a viable health care system.”

But the economic arguments haven’t worked, either, and Republican leaders have pushed back against those, saying the conversation should be about the quality of health care — not job creation.

Funding problems could worsen

As legislators return to Montgomery in March, they’ll face more uncertainty.

Additional cuts to Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments — a payment mechanism that supports many hospitals with a disproportionate number of low-income, uninsured patients and uncompensated care — could go into effect on Oct. 1, 2019, when the fiscal year 2020 begins.

The bulk of those cuts have been routinely delayed by the Republican-controlled Congress since they were set to take effect in 2014 — mainly because it would negatively hit Republican, non-expansion states.

But with Democrats heading into a majority, it isn’t so certain that those cuts will be delayed again.

Cuts to DSH payments could cost Alabama hospitals between $70 million and $156 million. More than 75 percent of Alabama’s more than 100 hospitals receive DSH payments. Those cuts could severely impact both rural and urban hospitals that care for uninsured, low-income patients. Experts fear those cuts could spur a health care crisis that isn’t just confined to rural hospitals and the areas they serve.

That’s because it’s not just rural hospitals that are struggling. Some larger hospitals, including DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, are having issues, too, because they care for a large number of uninsured patients.

Cuts to DSH payments already implemented have cost that system $15 million since 2013, the Tuscaloosa News reported.

Hospitals like those are barely operating in the black, and it wouldn’t take much to put them in the red.

“If the state has not expanded Medicaid in 2020, as the DSH cuts are scheduled to take effect, that will close a significant number of hospitals,” Howard said. “That will cripple. That will be the straw that the hospitals can’t survive.”

Some Republican lawmakers and officials have privately expressed concern about the DSH cuts. If they’re not delayed again this year, they said, it could force the state’s hand.

No appetite for the conversation

Despite the concerns about greater cuts in funding for hospitals and the potential loss of access to comprehensive care in rural areas, Republican leaders have said publicly that there is little appetite to resume a debate about Medicaid expansion.

Gov. Kay Ivey has rejected discussion about Medicaid expansion, and Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said in an interview that expansion is unlikely to be on the agenda.

“Among the Republican leadership and Republican caucus, when discussions have been made, there has been no initiative, if you will, to expand Medicaid,” Marsh said. “In fact, the position has been to control the costs of Medicaid and to put pressure on the health care community to find ways to make it more efficient.”

Marsh said perhaps every rural area doesn’t need a hospital.

“But their argument is not that our hospitals are having a hard time,” Marsh said, referring to the hospital association. “Essentially what they’re saying is that they’re having a hard time keeping the hospital the size it is and paying all of their employees. The question is, ‘Okay, is the hospital too big for the area?’”

Dial, who is leaving the Alabama Senate after more than 30 years in the chamber, said this is the year for the conversation as it’s become more and more clear that Republicans won’t be able to repeal the Affordable Care Act within a Democrat-controlled House.

“I think the possibility went from 40-60 to 60-40,” Dial said. “I think it’s a 60 percent chance (they will address expansion).”

Dial said the Legislature should consider a partial expansion that would allow the state to expand the program to a certain degree and still qualify for federal funding.

It’s already extremely difficult for anyone to qualify for Medicaid in Alabama, though the program still covers about 1 million people, most of whom are children or disabled. Virtually no childless adults are enrolled in the program.

Adults with children on Medicaid can only receive benefits if they make 18 percent of the poverty level, which is about $3,740 a year in a household of three. Medicaid expansion as outlined in the ACA would allow those making up to 138 percent of the poverty level, $16,753 for an individual and $28,676 for a household of three, to qualify for benefits

Estimates vary, but between 75,000 and 300,000 Alabamians would qualify for coverage in expansion. At least 75,000 make too much to qualify under current eligibility rules but make too little to qualify for subsidies from federal government for marketplace programs, according to a June report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Some states — Arkansas, Massachusetts and Utah among them — have tried to get a waiver to limit eligibility for adults up to 100 percent of the poverty line, significantly less than the number provided in the ACA. President Donald Trump’s administration reportedly initially denied those requests, but showed some willingness to consider it after midterms and has left the door open for the future.

“We’re talking about picking and choosing different things that could help rural health care,” Dial said, “and looking at only taking those we can afford to fund on our level. I think the state from the General Fund could create anywhere from $75 million to $100 million next year to expand into that area and bring $400 million or $500 million back to the state in benefits that will equate into money for jobs, money for expansion and money for equipment.”

Medicaid is by far the largest budget item in the state’s General Fund budget, which pays for all non-education-related programs. Last year, the costs surpassed $750 million, and it’s expected to grow as lawmakers prepare the FY2020 budget, and Marsh said there isn’t room for much more spending.

Dial said he’s spoken with a number of House and Senate leaders who would be amenable to a conversation, and he thinks there could be action this year.

“It’s not going to be at the top of the agenda like probably the fuel tax, which is probably going to be the No. 1 thing now, but I think it’s going to be critical, and I think you’ll see some action this first year on it, because I think those people understand how critical it is,” Dial said.

 

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Senate confirmed Burke to be district judge in North Alabama

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