The House’s Ways and Means General Fund committee Wednesday approved a $1.8 billion General Fund budget for fiscal year 2015 that provides more money for Medicaid, level funds other state agencies and makes a cost-of-living increase for state employees unlikely.
The budget proposal closely follows Gov. Robert Bentley’s budget from January. However, the document — which now goes to the full House for consideration — will still be a work in progress for lawmakers, particularly when it comes to funding for the Department of Corrections.
DOC came out of the House committee essentially level-funded, but both House Ways and Means General Fund chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark and Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, have said they want to find more money for the department, facing severe overcrowding and understaffing issues.
Clouse said Wednesday lawmakers are continuing to meet with DOC Commissioner Kim Thomas on the department’s needs. The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, saying in a letter to Thomas last month that Alabama was violating Tutwiler inmates’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment “by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.”
“We continue to meet with (Thomas) on the demands he’s getting from the federal government, and what we need to do with the prison situation,” Clouse said after the meeting. “That (number) may very well change as we move forward in the process.”
An attempt to reach Thomas for comment was unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon. The commissioner told the Advertiser last week that he had met with the budget chairs, but was not privy to their funding discussions.
Medicaid, the largest single component in the budget, would get about $685 million in the budget proposal, an increase of about $70 million over its current state funding level. The agency had requested $700 million, but Dr. Don Williamson, who is overseeing efforts to overhaul delivery of Medicaid services, said Medicaid could make the budget work through some cost-cutting cutting measures, such as looking at new ways to purchase pharmaceuticals.
“We’ll start broke and we’ll end up broke,” he said. “But we’ll pay all our bills in the process.”
However, Williamson said the $685 million does not cover other contingencies, such as an ongoing dispute with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services over enrollment of children in the program, which could cost the agency tens of millions of dollars.
Alabama Medicaid has some of the strictest enrollment requirements in the country. Childless adults are almost never eligible, and parents of children can only qualify if their income is 11 to 13 percent of the poverty level. Despite that, the program covers about 20 percent of the state’s population, and pays for more than half of the live births. The federal government picks up more than two-thirds of the costs of running the program.
Like Bentley’s budget, the House version includes a conditional appropriation of $22 million to help fund a four percent state employee pay raise. However, that raise would only come if money becomes available, and lawmakers are pessimistic that any additional funds will come into the perpetually cash-strapped budget.
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he wanted the conditional pay raise to be the first priority if the money became available. He said Bentley made a commitment to conditional pay raises in his state of the state address last month.
Several committee members said they agree the pay raises are important, but don’t want to bind themselves in case an appropriation needs to be made to another department or agency — such as Corrections or Medicaid — later.
“We’re not adding anything to the prisons here, but we may have to as the session goes on and we get more information,” Clouse said.
“Many of us feel we want to release this as the first conditional,” said Rep. Charles Newton, R-Greenville. “But to tie our hands today doesn’t seem prudent.”
The committee voted against Knight’s amendment to make the pay raises a conditional first priority.
The General Fund budget gets most of its revenues from three dozen sources, most of which post flat growth year-to-year. The Legislative Fiscal Office projected in January that revenues in the General Fund would be down by about $83 million; lawmakers have made up the difference by seeking money from other areas, such as unclaimed property and the business license tax.
Clouse said they were “comfortable” with those projections.
The Attorney General’s office did not receive any money in the General Fund budget. In a statement, Attorney General Luther Strange said he hoped “it was a mistake.”
“Given everything my office is working on across the State, like defending laws passed by the Legislature and prosecuting the BP oil spill case, it’s troubling not to receive guaranteed funding for the office,” the statement said.
(Updated at 5:19 p.m.)