A budget at last: What got cut, what didn’t, and what’s next for Alabama

Three times proved to be the charm Wednesday night as the Alabama Legislature finally passed a General Fund (GF) budget and accompanying revenue bills. Gov. Robert Bentley signed the budget Thursday morning, a mere two weeks before the start of the 2016 budget year.

Tax bills: What passed and what didn’t

Alabama faced a GF budget shortfall of nearly $260 million that was partially filled by a 25-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax. Alabama Arise and health advocates had hoped for a much larger increase that would have raised more revenue and ensured a reduction in smoking, particularly among teens. Unfortunately, the tax approved was inadequate to meet either need.

The Legislature also passed two small provider taxes (each worth about $8 million) on pharmacies and nursing homes. These taxes were dedicated to the Medicaid program and helped save both promising new Medicaid reforms and Medicaid itself.

Facing opposition from ALFA, the Legislature failed to pass business privilege tax changes that would have raised $28 million by increasing taxes on the wealthiest corporations while cutting taxes for tens of thousands of small businesses. Separately, lawmakers also failed to eliminate the state income tax deduction for FICA (e.g., Social Security and Medicare) taxes, which would have raised nearly $200 million for education and other essential state programs.

Through a complicated linkage of bills, the Legislature transferred $80 million in use tax revenues (essentially a sales tax on out-of-state purchases) from education to the GF while also increasing the amount of education money available to public schools. Changes to the Rolling Reserve Act, which sets an artificial cap on annual education spending, replaced the lost use tax revenues by increasing the money available to schools for one-time infrastructure needs like books, building repairs, buses and technology. Alabama’s education funding still hasn’t returned its pre-recession 2008 level.

Altogether, the use tax transfer and the new taxes raised around $164 million. That was enough to prevent devastating cuts to crucial state services, but inadequate to truly fill the budget gap. The changes also were not nearly enough to solve the GF’s chronic shortfall.

Medicaid, DHR, mental health aren’t cut, but other important services are

Because new revenues were inadequate, not all state agencies received the money needed to maintain current service levels. The Department of Public Health was cut by nearly $10 million, of which $2.4 million came from AIDS medication assistance. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management was nearly zeroed out of the budget, endangering the state’s environmental protection and risking federal intervention.

The Department of Youth Services was cut by nearly 20 percent, which almost certainly will result in fewer community services for at-risk children and teens. Senior services also suffered a small cut, though it should not affect the Medicaid waivers that allow hundreds of seniors to live independently outside of nursing homes.

Other essential services survived without the devastating cuts feared earlier this year. The “Big Five” – Medicaid, mental health, corrections, trial courts and the Department of Human Resources – all were funded at or above 2015 GF levels.

Important reforms to Medicaid and the corrections system also will be able to continue. Lawmakers cobbled together additional money to support Medicaid’s transition to a regional care organization model designed to cut costs and keep patients healthier. The GF budget also funds new parole officers and community correctional services as alternatives to lengthy prison sentences.

The prison reform funding was good news on another front: It means Alabama will end its lifetime SNAP and TANF eligibility bans for people with a past felony drug conviction. Language ending the state’s bans on assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is included in the prison reform law that the Legislature passed earlier this year. With funding in place to allow the law to take effect, the SNAP and TANF bans will end Jan. 30, 2016.

Hope for the future

As the last late night of the session wrapped up Wednesday, there were some encouraging signs for the future. For the first time, the conservative supermajority in the Legislature was willing to consider raising taxes, and majorities in both the House and Senate actually voted to do so. Legislative floor debate included real, serious discussion of Alabama’s structural deficit and the need for comprehensive tax reform.

Most importantly, the organized voices of citizens and advocates for low-income Alabamians, seniors, children, and people with disabilities were loud – and effective – in their demand for new taxes instead of devastating cuts to life-saving state services. Constituent emails, telephone calls, postcards and face-to-face meetings with legislators helped to prevent those cuts. They also helped convince the Legislature, though reluctantly and inadequately, to raise tax revenue to support vital services that make Alabama a better place to live and work.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Sept. 18, 2015.