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Committee Rejects Plan to Raid Rolling Reserve

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Wednesday, May 13, the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee voted against a controversial plan to raid the rolling reserve fund to prop up the State’s troubled General Fund Budget.

Alabama inexplicably has two budgets with different revenues earmarked for each. The Education Trust Fund (ETF) supports Alabama’s Colleges, Universities, pre-K thru 12th grade education, and two year college system. The General Fund supports Alabama’s: courts, roads, prisons, Medicaid, Commerce, Law Enforcement etc. Because Education Revenues like the income tax go up and down with the economy a portion of education dollars goes to fund the rolling reserve which is a reserve fund the state maintains for economic downturns like the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009.

Senator Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) sponsored SB12.

Sen. Sanford told the Committee:
“What I wanted to try to do is to try to share the growth with the general fund. I realized there are some constraints with the State Constitution particularly with income taxes. 78 percent of State revenues goes to the ETF and 22 percent go to the General Fund. $6.2 billion and $1.5 billion a year respectively. I have been working on this for three years. The goal was not to reduce money in the education fund but rather to share the growth with the General Fund.”

SB12 diverts some money from the stabilization fund to the General Fund.

Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) said, “I understand what you are trying to do. We do not fund education where it needs to be…I am not for supporting a bill that will fund the general fund on the backs of the boys and the girls of this State.”

Sen. Roger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) said, “I fully concur with the gentleman (Dial).  We have been having a problem in the general fund and we all know that.  Once things start I am ready to dig in to this one principle I want every dime of general fund spending out of education. We ain’t where we are supposed to be in education. Books are supposed to be $60 million so every child can have books and bring them home.  We have to raise enough money for the General Fund to get all the education money out of there.”

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Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) asked Sanford, “What were you thinking when you decided to introduce this bill?”

Sen. Sanford said, “There is a crisis in the State of money for the General Fund. We took money out of the Trust Fund to get us past this last election. I did not support that then. This year there will be excess of $200 to $225 million diverted into the stabilization fund. The Governor is not running around the State saying that we need more taxes.  I think it is time to stabilize some things. I am trying to get some of the growth revenue into the General Fund.  Allow that to fund the general fund until we can find another solution.  We are going to cut your mental health when there is $200 million sitting in a kitty fund?

Sen. Figures said we would not be in this situation if the Governor had signed the paper to expand Medicaid.

Sen. Sanford said that other states who did expand Medicaid have had to spend $10, 20, 30, 40 million more than they anticipated.

Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma) asked, “Do you agree that education is not fully funded?”

Sanford said, “I am not sure what you mean by that?”

Sen. Sanders said, “Books, transportation. Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul but you are robbing Peter’s children to pay Paul.”

Sen. Quinton Ross (D-Montgomery) said, “I appreciate you bringing this piece of legislation but disagree. We should look at repealing the rolling reserve where we have this pool of money that we can’t get to but should use it to enhance education: not take from it.  We are in a pickle right now but I can’t support this.”

Sen. Sanford said, “I know the State is in financial distress right now but we aren’t broke when there is several hundred million sitting there in an account. Raising taxes is not the only way.  SB12 can’t solve all the problems in the General Fund but I got about $150 million. Mental health patients are not getting the care that they deserve and we have several hundred million in a pot you can’t touch.”

Chairman Trip Pittman (R-Montrose) said, “This is ESTIMATED money.  We have had no proration because of the discipline that the rolling reserve dictates.”

Sen. Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) said, “I would like to speak in favor of the bill: SB12. I collect quotes. British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing a joint session of Congress said on the war on terror, ‘Somewhere in Idaho there is a common man saying why us? Why now?  Because destiny has put you in this place.’  I am tired of playing whack a mole with the General Fund Budget.  I am tired of this every year. Put this before the body of the Senate.  I think the citizens of the state deserve to know that at the same time we are wrestling with gambling or raising taxes the state needs to know how we spend our money.”

Sen. Williams said, “I am a child of public education. My family is full of educators. My new daughter-in-law is an educator. Growth revenues are in the education fund. This does not break the rolling reserve.  Education would never be funded lower than at current levels. I think that this is a way to avoid a consolidated budget. The call will only get louder for a consolidated budget if we don’t share some of those revenues with the General Fund.”

Sen. Williams warned that voting no on SB12 could become a clarion call to combine the budgets: “That debate is already happening.  I don’t see SB12 as a raid on education.  SB12 does not do away with that budget. State troopers, roads and bridges are essential State services.  If the streets are not safe and essential programs and policies don’t continue to stay up then our education system will suffer by default.  We have fundamental opportunities to change how we do business.”

Susan Kennedy with the Alabama Education Association (AEA) told the committee, “I applaud Sen. Sanford for addressing a problem that we all know is there. People have long recognized that the General Fund has no growth taxes. People pay taxes to education in this state. The people voted to send their tax dollars to education. Banks, insurance companies and oil taxes go to the General Fund. There are some extremely large exemptions in the General Fund that the state should look at eliminating.  “When you combine the budgets you make us both broke.”

Kennedy was the only citizen who opted to speak at the public hearing.

Sen. Dial moved to indefinitely postpone any action on SB12.  It was seconded by Sen. Quinton Ross.

The motion to keep SB12 from coming to the Senate floor passed by an 8 to 5 vote.

An angry Sen. Sanford said, “I look forward to seeing 8 solutions being brought forward from this committee.”

Chairman Pittman said, “We are in a killing mood today.”

Sen. Sanders said, “We are in a protecting mood.”

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Health

Feds resolve complaint over “discriminatory” Alabama emergency ventilator policy

Eddie Burkhalter

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The federal government on Wednesday said it had resolved an investigation into an Alabama’s policy regarding triage of pandemic patients and use of ventilators that a federal agency called “discriminatory” against those with intellectual disabilities and older people. 

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights in a statement Wednesday said the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) had agreed to remove all mention of the 2010 document from state websites and that the department would comply with all civil rights laws. 

There were 2,472 confirmed COVID-19 cases across Alabama as of Wednesday afternoon, 67 reported deaths and 314 hospitalizations form the virus.

Of the 144 COVID-19 patients in Alabama intensive care units as of Tuesday, 93 were hooked to the life-saving ventilators, according to ADPH. Ventilators are in short supply in Alabama and in most other states as each is vying to stockpile the machines.

The federal agency was acting on a complaint filed on March 24 by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and The Arc of the United States that said ADPH’s emergency operations plan violated disabled persons’ federal disability rights laws. 

According to the state’s plan, last updated in 2010, under a “last resort” condition hospitals are ordered to not offer mechanical ventilator support for patients, including children, with “severe or profound mental retardation,” “moderate to severe dementia,” and “severe traumatic brain injury.” 

An ADPH spokesman on March 26 told APR that the 2010 document had already been replaced and that the new document covers a much broader scope of topics than just ventilators, and was developed by a much larger group of people. 

The new document, dated Feb. 28, 2020, does not contain the same language about restricting use of ventilators for the intellectually disabled or older patients, but it also doesn’t clarify how, exactly, ventilators are to be used during an emergency triage situation. 

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OCR notes the lack of clarity on that in the statement Wednesday. 

“OCR is aware that on February 28, 2020, Alabama released new Crisis Standards of Care (CSC) Guidelines. The 2010 Criteria, however, were still available on some state webpages, and it was not clear whether any of their potentially problematic provisions could still be applied under the new Guidelines,” the U.S. Office of Civil Rights said in a statement. 

But OCR said in the statement that Alabama has agreed to comply with civil rights laws and that the old provisions won’t be used in the future. 

“The state has agreed to remove all links to the 2010 Criteria from its websites and to comply with applicable civil rights law. It has further agreed to clarify publicly that the 2010 Criteria are not in effect; that it will not, in future CSC guidelines, include similar provisions singling out certain disabilities for unfavorable treatment or use categorical age cutoffs; and that it will also not interpret the current Guidelines in such a manner,” OCR said in the statement. 

OCR director Roger Severino in a statement Wednesday commended Alabama for “quickly disavowing problematic triage plans and coming into compliance with federal civil rights laws within days of being contacted by our office. 

“Alabama and other states are free to and encouraged to adopt clear triage policies, but they must do so within the guardrails of the law,” Severino said.

“We are pleased that the state of Alabama has rescinded this illegal policy and given notice to hospitals across the state that they may not rely on this policy and cannot discriminate against people with disabilities in accessing lifesaving care,”
said Shira Wakschlag, Legal Counsel for the Arc of the United States, in a statement Wednesday.

Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, in a statement said Wednesday’s actions are an important first step, and the organization “appreciates that Alabama acted quickly to withdraw its discriminatory policy.”

“We call on the Governor to work with ADAP and others in the disability community to develop transparent and clear guidance on how to implement these non- discrimination requirements in the event that rationing of ventilators becomes necessary,” Brownstein said.

“All people deserve compassion and equal respect, and with this in mind, the allocation of care cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex, exercise of conscience or religion,” said Alabama state health officer Dr. SCott Harris said in OCR’s statement. “This includes the use of ventilators during medical emergencies in addressing the needs of at-risk populations in Alabama.”

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Jones asks for faster emergency loans to small businesses

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and a ranking Republican colleague led other lawmakers in a request that the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration speed up loans to small businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jones and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and other legislators in a letter Wednesday to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza asked that payroll processing companies be allowed to disburse CARES Act small business loans to speed up payments to those small businesses and to get workers paid quickly. 

“Payroll processors have the needed existing infrastructure that will enable businesses to quickly pay their workers and pending bills. Given they originate approximately 40 percent of all the payroll checks in the country and mostly cater to small businesses with 500 employees or less, involving these companies will ensure a deeper dissemination of funds nationwide to the businesses that need it most to keep their doors open,” the letter reads. 

 “It is critical that all tools be used to distribute federal funds effectively and expeditiously, including payroll processing companies used by many small businesses,” they continued. “Please consider permitting payroll processors to partner with small businesses and banks to help alleviate any potential complications for many small businesses during this tumultuous time, the letter continues. 

 Jones in a separate letter Tuesday to Mnuchin asked that the federal government expedite direct assistance payments to citizens amid the COVID-19 outbreak by allowing some to receive the money quicker through debit cards rather than paper checks. 

Senators Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Mark Warner, D-Va. and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. also signed the Wednesday letter.

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More than half of Alabama COVID-19 deaths are among black people

Chip Brownlee

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More than half of the deaths so far in Alabama from COVID-19 have been among black people, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Black Alabamians make up only 27 percent of the state’s population.

New data released Wednesday shows that the number of deaths among black people infected with COVID-19 in Alabama is higher than initially reported Tuesday, worsening an already disproportionate death rate.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is releasing new demographic data daily, and the numbers could shift again, but the early data show the virus is disproportionately killing black Alabamians.

Black people account for 52 percent of 48 verified deaths in Alabama, up from 44 percent of the verified deaths reported Tuesday. White people, who account for about 69 percent of the state’s population, make up 37.5 percent of the state’s deaths so far. At least 60 deaths have been reported, but not all of them have been investigated by the ADPH’s epidemiology staff.

Public health experts, including Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the dean of the UAB School of Medicine, have said that a lack of access to health care, higher uninsured rates and more underlying chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease are contributing to the higher number of deaths among black Alabamians.

Rep. Anthony Daniels, the minority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives and a member of Gov. Kay Ivey’s coronavirus task force, told APR Wednesday that the state cannot wait to issue an after-action report on the disparities. It must start collecting and reporting as much data as possible now — on testing, on hospitalizations, on deaths and on outcomes in general.

All Alabamians, not just black Alabamians, have higher rates of underlying disease and chronic illness, making the state particularly susceptible to severe health effects caused by the virus. Men of all races have also made up a disproportionate number of the early deaths in Alabama. At least 64 percent of those who have died so far have been men, though women have made up more of the early confirmed cases at about 56 percent. Men are also more likely to have cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions that make people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Alabama also has a higher rate of poverty, especially in black communities, which results in worse health outcomes. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the death rate for black people is higher than that of whites for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes and HIV/AIDS — not because of biology but because of socioeconomic inequalities.

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“There are underlying health conditions in poor communities period, whether you’re black or white,” Daniels said. “I don’t know that there is enough data out there to definitely say that underlying health conditions are the sole indicator.”

Black people in Alabama, and across the United States, suffer worse health outcomes in a variety of areas — not just from this virus. Black women in Alabama have much higher rates of maternal mortality than white women, and studies have shown that people of color have more limited access to health care and higher uninsured rates than white people.

“We’ve known that the maternal mortality rate is an example of where we are,” Daniels said of health care disparities for people of color. “We’ve got to look at this. Is this quality or standard or care? There are so many underlying things that we have to think about.”

Daniels also said he worries that the number of cases and deaths in vulnerable communities is being undercounted because these people, especially early on in the outbreak, may not have been able to get a test or get to a hospital.

He called on the state to provide emergency funding to the Department of Public Health to gather more data and expand the response to the virus.

“We’ve got to look at the data more broadly,” Daniels said. “We cannot wait on an after-action report to determine what we could have or should have done. Alabama has so many smart people.”

The cause does not seem to be a lack of seriousness among people of color. Black people, at 46 percent, and Latinos, at 39 percent, are nearly twice likely to view the coronavirus as a major threat to their health, compared to about 21 percent among white people, according to Pew Research.

Demographics as of April 7.

The disproportionate number of deaths could also be stemming in part from geography. The virus has ravaged areas of the country with larger black populations, in part because cities tend to have a higher number of black residents. The virus is affecting several cities in the state with large black populations. At least 480 cases and 13 deaths have been confirmed in Jefferson County, where the largest city, Birmingham, has a majority black population.

The area of Alabama with the least access to health care, the Black Belt region, is also the area of the state with the largest black population. Many of the counties in this region of the state have no hospital. Expanded testing in this region has identified growing rates of infection.

“You could also worry that they just don’t get access,” Vickers said Saturday. “They don’t get to the hospital as early, and so it’s probably multiple reasons.”

Black people are also being disproportionately infected with the virus, according to the Department of Public Health. Though black people make up about 27 percent of the state’s population, about 37 percent of those with a confirmed case of the virus are black; 49.4 percent are white. The race of about 10 percent of the cases is unknown.

The data in Alabama mirror data in other states like Louisiana and Illinois, where black people have made up a disproportionate number of deaths caused by COVID-19.

“These communities, structurally, they’re breeding grounds for the transmission of the disease,” Sharrelle Barber, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University, told The New York Times. “It’s not biological. It’s really these existing structural inequalities that are going to shape the racial inequalities in this pandemic.”

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AlabamaWorks releases business survey to identify COVID-19 impact

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AlabamaWorks has announced a new tool for all businesses, large and small, related to the COVID-19 impact and future focus of the workforce in the state.

The Alabama COVID-19 Workforce Response Survey is designed to help the state fully understand the impact of this pandemic on the state’s workforce as well as provide a clear path forward for businesses, industry and state government.

“I am grateful to the Alabama Workforce Council for developing and deploying this much needed and user-friendly survey,” said Governor Kay Ivey. “As we work together to combat COVID-19’s impact, this tool will allow us to identify the needs of business and industry, resources that can help them and how we can best support Alabama’s businesses owners and hardworking Alabamians and their families.”

The official survey, which is critical for helping individual industry sectors recover from COVID-19, is available here: http://sm.aidt.edu/alabamaworks-survey.

“While these are challenging times, we fully understand that now, more than ever, business and industry leaders must continue to work together with Governor Ivey’s administration and various state agencies to move us all forward together,” noted Alabama Workforce Council Chairman Tim McCartney. “Rest assured there is an unwavering commitment to do everything we can to minimize the negative impact COVID-19 has on our businesses, our economy, the state and all of its citizens. Using the results from this survey, I know we can all make a difference in combating the challenges from this pandemic facing so many throughout Alabama.”

Responses to the survey will be accepted through Tuesday, April 21 at 5 p.m. All businesses are highly encouraged to participate as the responses will help to protect Alabama’s workforce, manage the impact of COVID-19 and guide the allocation of various resources.

Additionally, another tool was released earlier this week for hard-working Alabamians from Governor Ivey’s office to help connect people to resources and resources to people. ALtogetherAlabama.org is a one-stop-shop for all Alabamians meant to connect businesses, nonprofits, and people that need help with the available resources during this time.

For more information and resources on Alabama’s COVID-19 workforce recovery efforts please visit alabamaworks.com/coronavirus/.

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