Legislative Report 031717

Volume 18 Number 6 – March 17, 2017

11th, 12th, & 13th legislative days

House Passes General Fund Budget

After more than three hours of debate, the House of Representatives passed the General Fund Budget by a vote of 72 – 28.

Much of the debate came over the lack of a pay raise for state employees. Governor Bentley proposed a four percent raise in his budget, but the House-passed version did not include the raise. The raise would have cost the General Fund $19 million next year.

Some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, supported amendments to the budget to provide a pay bonus for state employees, who have not received a cost of living increase since fiscal year 2009.

The budget sets aside $97 million for fiscal year 2019. Rep. Steve Clouse (R – Ozark), Chairman of the Ways and Means – General Fund Committee, said the state needs the money to prepare for possible changes from Congress and because next year’s budget is propped up with one-time money from the BP settlement.

The budget, for the year that begins October 1, would spend $1.84 billion from the General Fund, almost exactly the same as this year. Most agencies would get about the same amount of money as they received this year.

The Alabama Medicaid Agency, which serves about one million people in the state and is the biggest spender from the General Fund, would receive $700 million from the General Fund plus a one-year supplement of $105 million from the BP oil spill settlement.

That $805 million total is $20 million more than Medicaid is receiving this year but $43 million less than the governor requested. Overall, the budget passed by the House would spend $62 million less than what Bentley proposed.

The budget now goes to the Senate Finance and Taxation – General Fund committee.

Senate Postpones Vote on Education Budget

On Thursday, the Senate postponed a vote on the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget after Sen. Paul Bussman (R – Cullman) said he would offer 20 or 30 amendments. Sen. Bussman and others contended that the members did not have enough time to review the budget after it was passed out of committee on Wednesday. Sen. Bussman also said he was concerned over “earmarks” for higher education and about whether K-12 was properly funded.

Overall, the bill would increase spending from the ETF by $90 million over this year, an amount determined by the Rolling Reserve Act, which caps spending based on a 15-year history of tax revenues.

It would boost funding for the state’s prekindergarten program to $79 million, a $15 million increase and provide funding to hire about 150 additional teachers in grades 4-6.

Sen. Arthur Orr (R – Decatur) expressed disappointment that the bill did not pass on Thursday. He said he could not remember the Senate failing to pass the budget on a day that it had designated to do so.

The Senate will likely take up the budget on April 4 when they return from Spring Break.

Senate Passes New Prison Construction Plan

A new prison construction bill passed the Senate by a vote of 23 – 11 on Thursday. The bill is a scaled-back version of the plan initially proposed by Governor Bentley.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward (R – Alabaster), would limit the state to building one prison and allow a bond issue of up to $350 million to build the prison and for renovations to existing prisons. It would allow local authorities to issue bonds for prison construction and then lease those facilities to the state. The bill would allow a total of up to three new prisons, with the local authorities building at least two.

The original plan called for a bond issue of $800 million to build three new, regional prisons for men while closing most of the existing prisons. It would also have replaced Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

The new bill would not replace Tutwiler, but it would provide $125 million for renovations to Tutwiler and other remaining prisons.

A key change in the new bill is that it would move much of the responsibility for building the prisons to local authorities.

Sen. Ward said the expectation is that counties and communities with prisons, especially those with multiple prisons, might take the initiative to build new prisons and lease them to the state because of the importance of the prison jobs.

The state could not proceed with the bond issue unless an agreement to lease at least two facilities from local authorities is in place.

Jeff Dunn, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said that although the bill has changed he still believes it is close enough to the original to accomplish the goals of the plan, which include replacing aging prisons, reducing overcrowding, and facilitating rehabilitation programs intended to reduce recidivism.

Dunn said the key to making it work is to consolidate most of the 13 men’s prisons into three regional prisons.

The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

Upcoming Legislative Schedule

The Legislature is taking a two-week Spring Break. The House of Representatives and Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, April 4 at 1:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. respectively.

April 4th will mark the 14th legislative day. They are allowed to meet for a total of 30 legislative days.