Poverty Commission to Lose State Funding Oct. 1: Task Force Has Had Few Victories in Legislature

September 24, 2013 | The Anniston Star |  Link to article

MONTGOMERY - The Alabama Commission to Reduce Poverty, formed in 2009 to find ways to lift more Alabamians above the poverty line, will get no money from the state in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The commission's members say the lack of money won't be a serious setback to the group, which, by law, has never been allowed to spend more than $5,000 per year.

A bigger challenge, members say, is a party-line split on anti-poverty measures, which has kept the commission from getting most of its proposals past the Legislature.

"The reality is, we're not New York, were not a progressive-thinking state," said state Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, the chairwoman of the commission. "We move slowly."

The Alabama Legislature in 2009 voted to establish the 22-member commission, which was charged with studying poverty in the state and recommending solutions. Several other states already had statewide commissions that focused on reducing poverty.

Alabama is, and historically has been, one of the poorest states in the nation. Eighteen percent of the state's residents lived below the poverty level in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. The poverty rate nationwide is 14 percent.

When Alabama's poverty commission was created in 2009, activists initially hailed the creation of the commission as a way to turn around Alabama's attitudes about itself.

"We should refuse to accept the perception that Alabama is always going to be poor," said Jodie Levin-Epstein, director of the D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, in an address to the commission in 2010. The Associated Press reported on that address.

In 2010, Levin-Epstein urged the commission to set up specific goals to strive for in eliminating poverty. Several other states with anti-poverty commissions have pledged to cut child poverty in half, usually giving themselves five to 10 years to reach that target.

So far, Alabama's commission hasn't set a poverty-reduction goal. The commission meets twice per year, members say, to discuss legislation designed to reduce the number of people living in poverty. Successes have been few.

"We've passed a couple of bills," Todd said.

The commission's biggest triumph so far, members say, was the passage of a bill to create a Housing Trust Fund to help nonprofit developers build more affordable housing. Todd said it's something most states already had.

Still, there's no money in that trust fund. The bill that creates the fund didn't identify a funding source, Todd said.

"There's no funding stream, and this is one of the things we're hoping to correct," she said.

Todd is less worried by the fact that the Poverty Commission is cut off from state money in the 2014 budget.

The group got roughly $7,200 in state funds in 2013, though Gov. Robert Bentley recommended no outlay for them in 2014. Bentley spokesman Jeremy King said the commission already had more money than it could spend in 2014, even given its $5,000 annual limit on spending.

Todd said she never expected the commission to spend very much.

"I wanted to always do the Poverty Commission without state money, and people who would do it on their own time," Todd said.

More than a dozen members of the commission are legislators who have been appointed automatically as a result of committee memberships or other positions.

"It's a chance to get them talking about issues of poverty for at least a couple of hours," said Kimble Forrister, executive director of the anti-poverty group Alabama Arise and a member of the commission.

Still, participation in the meetings has been spotty. Officials in both the Legislature and the governor's office said only about nine members of the group are still active. Todd said few lawmakers have shown sustained interest in the group.

"The only ones who come are Arthur Orr and Mike Ball," she said. Orr is a Republican state Senator from Decatur; Ball is a Republican House member from Madison.

At least one lawmaker told The Star he didn't know he was on the board.

"I'm not familiar with that," said Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, when asked how he felt about the commission's progress. Sanders, who is listed as a commission member on the House website and on a list maintained by House staff, said no one ever told him he was a member.

Ball, the Madison Republican, said he hadn't attended a formal meeting since 2010. Still, he said, the commission has produced suggestions for poverty reduction every year. Most of those suggestions, he said, were unlikely to make it through the Legislature.

"The ideas tended to come from the left," he said.

Anti-poverty groups have long advocated for an end to sales taxes on food and a change to the state's income tax structure to shift some of the tax burden off the lowest-income wage earners. Those proposals have never gained traction in the Legislature, in part because of lawmakers' opposition to raising taxes elsewhere to make up for lost sales or income tax revenue.

Todd agreed that the Democratic/Republican divide on poverty policy was blocking action from the commission.

"(Republicans) are all about job creation and career training," she said. "Of course you need that, but there are a lot of other things we have to do to make those things work."

The commission did see support from both sides of the aisle for an effort to regulate predatory lending, a topic it took on earlier this year. Still, lawmakers couldn't muster enough support to pass either of two competing bills this year.The governor later approved new regulations to help enforce existing limits on how much one person can borrow from payday lenders.

Todd said the commission is a long way from setting the sort of poverty-reduction goals adopted by other states.

"It's unrealistic to me, to say that you're going to end poverty by ‘x' date," she said. "I don't believe you can put out an arbitrary number without buy-in from the leaders of the Legislature."

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