Senate passes bill repaying $437 million to trust fund

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Both chambers of the Alabama Legislature have passed legislation to pay $437 million back to the Alabama Trust Fund after voters approved moving the funds over three years to avoid deep cuts to Medicaid, prisons and other state programs.

On Thursday, the Alabama Senate made changes to the proposal, which now goes back to the House for approval of those changes. Top lawmakers expect the House, which unanimously approved the proposal a week ago, to concur on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate passed the proposal on Thursday after members of the Republican supermajority voted to cut off debate after a brief discussion.

Black lawmakers criticized their colleagues for limiting discussion and for political posturing for passing the bill after not including language to repay the money in the original bill allowing voters to decide if they wanted to borrow the money.

State Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, speaks at a hearing on school safety in January 2013. (Amanda Sowards/MontgomeryAdvertiser)

“Had we intended to pay it back from the beginning, it probably would have been in the bill,” said Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, who said some lawmakers are now trying to “save face” with their constituents.

While encouraging voters to approve the transfer leading up to the September referendum, top state officials including Gov. Robert Bentley vowed to pay the money back to the trust fund, a repository for royalties from oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. They had said the transfer to the General Fund was needed to avoid deep cuts to Medicaid and other state programs and functions.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the repayment was a top priority for House Republicans and said that it would be the first bill passed by the House, which did approve it a week ago as its first major business.

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, said passing the bill was a “promise made and a promise kept,” and said repaying the money was fiscally responsible.

Voters approved moving $144.7 million a year from the trust fund to the General Fund during the 2013 through 2015 fiscal years, but that proposal did not include any measure mandating repayment.

Rep. Jay Love’s proposal would provide for the money to be paid back by Sept. 30, 2026, with there being a cumulative amount to be paid back each year beginning with $5 million on Sept. 30, 2014, and increasing how much is to be paid back each year. For instance, by Sept. 30, 2020, lawmakers are scheduled to pay back a total of $140 million.

The Senate added language on Thursday that would transfer the money from the General Fund to the trust fund during any year when the Legislature fails to include the appropriation in the budget.

Democrats questioned on Thursday where the money would come from in the already tight General Fund budget. They said the trust fund does not receive tax dollars, but Republicans are moving to repay the fund with tax dollars that would go to Medicaid and mental health.

“We’re going to take money from agencies that deliver services to our people,” said Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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