In budget requests, state agencies seek pay raises, larger workforces

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State agencies are requesting an additional $268 million in funding.

State agencies are requesting an additional $268 million in funding.

Despite the tight budget picture, state agencies Monday pressed ahead with their budget requests, saying the state’s health care and public safety needs persisted through good times and bad.

State agencies have made total increase requests of $268 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.  In separate presentations Monday afternoon, the Alabama Medicaid Agency, Department of Corrections and state court system made total budget requests of $153.4 million, a few hours after the Legislative Fiscal Office projected an $83.3 million shortfall in the state’s troubled General Fund.

Medicaid, which gets 35 percent of the General Fund budget, had the largest request, seeking an additional $85 million to cover operations.  That request, if granted, would bring the agency up to $700 million.  Dr. Don Williamson, who has overseen efforts to overhaul Medicaid, also sought $43 million in conditional appropriation for “extraordinary” events, including the settling of a dispute with the federal Medicaid agency over how the state calculated the number of children enrolled in 2009 and 2010.

Williamson said the department’s costs were being driven by increased enrollment in the program, which continues to climb despite restrictive enrollment requirements, an improving economy and a fall in the state’s unemployment rate.  Monthly average enrollment in Medicaid this month is projected at 984,000, over 20 percent of the state population, with most of those being children.

“Most people who are on Medicaid are working, with half of the people on Medicaid, at least one person in a family receiving Medicaid is working,” Williamson said after the presentation.  “I think the big issue here is going are the jobs low wage jobs, and as a result, their income is not high enough to bump them off Medicaid.”

Williamson also cited projected increases in physician, pharmacy and health care costs.  The agency will receive an extra $24.5 million from the federal government, due to an increase in reimbursement rates.  The federal government pays for more than two-thirds of the state’s Medicaid costs.

Medicaid is projected to receive $615.1 million this year.  Williamson said the agency was able to make that work, but had to make cuts to reimbursements to Medicaid providers to stay afloat.

The Department of Corrections, which takes about 22 percent of the General Fund, requested an increase of $42 million and a total budget of $438 million.  The request includes $5.1 million to hire 100 new correctional officers, $4 million for security improvements at the three maximum security facilities and $3.9 million for merit raises.

Thomas said the $16.1 million request to give security staff  – not administrative staff — a 10 percent raise will help retain officers. He said staffing is a huge priority.

“I feel strongly that this is the most difficult job in the state of Alabama,” Thomas said. “You cannot retain people if you don’t periodically incentivize them with pay increases.”

Thomas said it’s difficult to recruit officers in the first place because the starting pay is about $28,500, or about $7,000 lower than officers who start as a state trooper or an officer in Montgomery or Birmingham.

ADOC also wants to increase its spending on community corrections programs by about $4 million to help divert new inmates and keep the population growth to a minimum. Thomas said the 22 counties in Alabama that don’t have those programs make up 18 to 21 percent of the prison population.

Thomas said he understands that state budget projections this year are pretty flat, but the maximum security improvements and limiting the population are top priorities.

“We need as much as possible to try to affect the population as much as we can through making sure community corrections programs are efficient,” Thomas said.

Other increases include $4.2 million for contractual healthcare cost increases, $2.4 million for employee retirement increases, $1.8 million for vehicle purchases and $700,000 for leased beds in county jails.

The state’s court system is also seeking add personnel to trial courts.  Chief Justice Roy Moore and AOC director Rich Hobson requested $26.4 million from the General Fund, mainly to restore positions lost to layoffs.  Hobson said they sought to hire an additional 200 court specialists and 85 juvenile probation officers, positions they said had been lost to layoffs.

The courts, hit hard in recent years by cuts and proration, requested a total outlay from the General Fund of $113.6 million.  Moore, who first served as Chief Justice from 2001 to 2003, noted that his budget was about $6 million less than what he requested in 2002.

“Everyone complains about the courts moving slowly,” he said.  “The lack of funding does not help.”

Last March, Moore ordered circuit clerk offices around the state to close to the public on Wednesdays, citing a need for clerks to catch up on paperwork that day.  Moore and Hobson have also warned that failure to get adequate funding this year could lead to further layoffs in court staff, and possible closures of drug and mental health courts.

“We’re hanging in there, but we’re in drastic need of help,” Hobson said.

The requests also include $1.6 million for merit raises.  Moore said the court system was in no position to give merit raises, which Gov. Robert Bentley ordered unfrozen last June.

The agencies’ requests are almost certain to be altered as the long budget process begins. Bentley will deliver his State of the State address Tuesday evening, where he will outline his legislative and fiscal priorities for the coming session.  He will deliver his budget to the Legislature on Wednesday, the second day of the legislative session.  Lawmakers will debate the budgets in the coming weeks.

– posted by Kala Kachmar and Brian Lyman

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