Short on funds: State leaders seek budget solution

Published 4:19 pm Friday, August 7, 2015

A special session of the Alabama Legislature called to address a budget shortfall is looking not-so-special.

Legislators and Gov. Robert Bentley have been unable to agree on how to balance the budget–whether by raising taxes or cutting government expenditures or some combination of the two.

As of Friday, it seemed doubtful the Legislature would pass a budget by its mandatory adjournment on Aug. 11.

Even if the House and Senate can agree on a budget, it would need to be signed by Bentley. If Bentley vetoes a legislative budget, the body would likely not have time remaining for a possible override.

If no resolution is found by the time the session is adjourned, Bentley would likely immediately call another special session, said Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), a member of the Senate’s Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee.

The budget plan that generated the most traction was one that would have cut Medicaid spending by $156 million.

Detractors said the cuts could shut down the program, but the budget was passed by the House.

State Rep. Jimmy Martin (R-Clanton) said the House was tasked with finding a solution for a decrease of $200 million in General Fund revenue from last year.

“My first session was in 1999, and we were borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” said Martin, who also pointed out that Medicaid would represent 37 percent of the General Fund budget this year compared to 16 percent in 995. “The wheels have run off. So now we’ve got to do something.”

Martin said in addition to the problems Medicaid cuts could cause, the Legislature must also consider how to properly fund prison operations and road and bridge improvements.

“It’s terrible the shape we’re in,” he said. “We’ve hit the bottom of the barrel.”

The budget that would cut Medicaid was to be considered by a Senate committee on Friday. In order to be implemented, a budget would have to be approved by both houses of the Legislature and the governor.

Ward, who represents part of Chilton County, said he would oppose the budget if it came before the full Senate.

“We cannot decimate Medicaid because of what it would do to the number of children and seniors in our state who depend on Medicaid in their daily lives,” Ward said. “If we should lose or cut Medicaid funding, the first people to be hit will be rural hospitals and nursing homes. We would lose jobs, not to mention the human toll it would take on seniors and kids. That would be devastating for rural counties in this state.”

Bentley pushed a plan to raise $302 million for the General Fund through measures including a 25-cent tax increase on packs of cigarettes, but his proposals didn’t have enough support among legislators.

Ward said it was possible the Legislature could work over the weekend to try to find a solution.

“I am truly hopeful that we can get everything clear, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be possible,” Martin said.