Final shape of General Fund, education budgets unclear as plans advance in Alabama Legislature

Alabama’s prison system would get slightly less money next year under a General Fund (GF) budget that cleared the Senate’s GF budget committee 9-1 Wednesday. Even though the committee’s budget includes more prison funding than the House-passed version, total GF support for the Department of Corrections next year still would fall by about $2 million, or 0.5 percent. The full Senate could consider the budget as soon as Thursday.

The committee’s budget would provide $4.8 million more to the overcrowded Alabama prison system than the House version would. Of that amount, $3.5 million would be earmarked for a facility to house some inmates from the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka. For the last year, Tutwiler has been the subject of a federal investigation into reported sexual assaults of prisoners by corrections officers. The money would be spent to renovate an overflow facility for Tutwiler, which operates at more than twice its designed capacity.

Corrections also received an additional $1.3 million to improve security systems in male maximum-security prisons. In addition to the new women’s facility, the Senate committee approved $250,000 for a new ombudsman program for women prisoners who report mistreatment by corrections officers.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the Joint Legislative Prison Committee, praised the GF budget committee’s efforts to address the problems at Tutwiler but said more changes will be needed. “There is only so much we can rely on in the budget to fund prisons and to hope these problems will go away,” Ward said. “Until we get serious about overcrowding, we cannot build our way out of this problem. We cannot budget from crisis to crisis. Leadership will be needed in 2015 to support corrections.”

The Senate committee’s $1.8 billion GF budget is nearly $15 million larger than the House-passed version. The committee’s budget includes $4.5 million to provide a state employee bonus of $400 per state employee. HB 367, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, would provide that bonus, as well as a conditional cost-of-living increase for state employees if revenues become available.

The Department of Public Health would receive an extra $1.25 million for research of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders. The committee also boosted public health funding by $150,000 to establish a grant program for free health clinics across Alabama. The Department of Mental Health’s appropriation would increase by $1 million, of which about $23,000 would be earmarked to help improve autism services.

Medicaid funding would increase by 11.4 percent next year under the committee’s GF budget. That amount, unchanged from the House-passed budget, still would fall short of what State Health Officer Don Williamson said the agency needs from the GF. Williamson said Medicaid could survive next year at that funding level by finding more ways to trim costs in the prescription drug program and other areas.

Tight education budget wins House approval by narrow margin

A deeply divided Alabama House voted 51-47 Tuesday for a $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that does not include Gov. Robert Bentley’s requested 2 percent teacher pay raise or the Senate-passed 1 percent teacher bonus. Instead, the House version would increase state funding for K-12 teachers’ health insurance, though not by as much as Bentley requested. The ETF budget, which the Senate passed last month, has gone to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions.

House members answered Bentley’s call to expand ETF support for early childhood education programs, giving the state’s pre-Kand Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) initiatives an additional $11.6 million. The K-12 Foundation Program, the largest source of state K-12 support, would receive $19.6 million more next year under the House version than from the Senate’s budget, for a total increase of $80.7 million, or 2.2 percent.

The House also responded to state school Superintendent Tommy Bice’s request for more money for buses and new middle school teachers. The House budget includes $8.7 million in additional transportation money and more funding to hire another 400 middle school teachers.

Two-year colleges and four-year universities would see slight ETF funding increases next year under the House’s budget. Lawmakers reversed a $10 million funding cut for Alabama State University (ASU) that cleared the Senate. The cut angered many members of the Legislative Black Caucus and encouraged many ASU students to come to the State House this month to support their school.

ETF support for the Department of Human Resources (DHR) would more than double next year to help offset a proposed cut to its GF support. The departments of Mental Health and Public Health would see little change to their ETF funding next year.

The House-passed budget alsohas a number of other line items for non-education programs, including a $2.6 million increase for the Department of Commerce, giving the agency a total appropriation from the education budget of $54.2 million. Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, criticized the Legislature for using education dollars for non-classroom purposes. “There are a lot of things in the budget that don’t focus on children, like the Veterans Affairs Department and the Department of Commerce,” Todd said. “I’d like the budget to be entirely about public education.”

State law places a spending cap, informally called the rolling reserve, on the amount that can be spent from the ETF in any given year. The House’s budget would exceed this cap by $24 million while budgeting $27.6 million to repay money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) in prior years. The ATF, which receives royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling in Alabama’s coastal waters, is the funding source for the state’s ETF rainy day account.

Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 27th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted March 19, 2014.