By Brian Lyman
Gov. Robert Bentley Thursday signed a $1.7 billion General Fund budget into law, ending a six month battle over state funding that needed three sessions of the Alabama Legislature to resolve.
"It is my intention to sign it later today," Bentley said in the Old State House Chamber Thursday morning, roughly 13 hours after the Legislature gave its final approval to the budget. "But we have to review it first."
Bentley announced that he had signed the budget through his Twitter account, around noon Thursday.
The General Fund budget maintains current funding levels for Medicaid, Corrections, Mental Health, Human Resources, Pardons and Paroles and the state's trial court system. Legislators also approved $16 million for reforms aimed at addressing the Alabama's prison overcrowding crisis.
But many other agencies saw cuts to their General Fund allocations, some steep. The Alabama Department of Senior Services got a cut of about $1.4 million on $30 million of state funding. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency will lose about $700,000 on General Fund money of $3.4 million. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management lost $928,048 of its $1.2 million.
"It's not a good budget," Bentley said. "It's not a perfect budget. (But) we have struggled, we have worked so hard over the last year to fundamentally change the way we budget in Alabama."
The Legislature adjourned Wednesday night after approving the General Fund, meaning they could not override any veto. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Wednesday evening Bentley had outlined his priorities for the General Fund.
"He made it very clear, 'Gentlemen, if you send me this budget, I will sign it,'" Marsh said. "I take the governor at his word. The House felt the same way."
Bentley in February proposed a $728 million package for the General Fund, a Dagwood sandwich of tax increases and deduction eliminations totaling $541 million. The governor also proposed removing $187 million in earmarks from state revenue. Bentley said the proposal would lead to long-term stability in the budget, but most of the measures did not pass.
Two slices of the February package -- a use tax transfer from the education budget to the General Fund and a cigarette tax increase -- did make through, though in different forms. Bentley had sought an 82.5 cent increase in the cigarette tax. The Legislature approved a 25 cent raise.
The governor also wanted to move use tax revenues and obligations to the General Fund, creating a net $50 million gain to the budget. The Legislature approved transferring about $80 million of the use tax without obligations. Legislators hope a handful of tax measures passed during a special session in August, along with changes to the Rolling Reserve cap in the ETF, will make up the difference.
The six months of the budget fight led to many disagreements between Bentley and the Legislature. A number became public. The governor threatened a special session in May, saying he would not accept less than $541 million in new revenue while slamming efforts to address the shortfall through lottery and gambling legislation.
Bentley said Thursday his February proposal reflected what might have happened in a "perfect world," and that state officials had taken steps toward creating stability in the beleaguered budget, plagued for years by flat revenue growth and rising costs. He also made a point of praising legislative leadership for getting the budget through.
"We said, 'Let's bring some use tax over,'" Bentley said. "That's what they did. 'Let's raise some taxes.' At first they said they're never going to do it. They did it. Those who stood strong and stood tall and put people over politics in this state and voted for a cigarette tax, I want to commend them."
Bentley also said Thursday he was cobbling together money to fund regional care organizations (RCOs) for Medicaid. The groups are a key component of a plan to bring Medicaid costs under control by moving the system from a fee-for-service plan to one based on health care outcomes. Without the RCO funding, Bentley said, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) might not approve the plan.
The governor said the money for the proposal would come from Medicaid overages, state hospitals and settlement money.
State agencies began to assess the impact of the budget cuts Thursday. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), lost about $1.8 million of its $9.3 million allocation. ADECA director Jim Byard Jr., who appeared with Bentley at a ceremony awarding $11.5 million in development grants in the Black Belt, said it could affect the department's ability to match federal grants to help communities.
"We're going to live with it," he said. "It's going to be tough. We have to match federal dollars. It's going to affect cities and counties. Those are our customers."
(c)2015 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)