State employees could get one-time bonus in General Fund proposal

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Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, seen here on Sept. 30, 2013, chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, seen here on Sept. 30, 2013, chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

State employees may get a one-time bonus worth around $400 under a 2015 General Fund budget proposal approved by a Senate committee Wednesday.

The bonus would be paid for by a $4.5 million allocation within the budget. Senate Finance and Taxation Committee chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the proposal could change before Thursday, when the Senate is expected to take up the budget.

State employees have not received a cost-of-living pay raise since 2008. Gov. Robert Bentley last year allowed state agencies to give merit raises to state employees. The state could also authorize a two percent bonus for state retirees; Orr said after the meeting that the bonus would not require additional funding from the state’s General Fund, due to improved calculations for Employee Retirement System revenue.

The $1.8 billion budget, about $14.8 million higher than a House budget approved earlier this month, also includes $3.5 million to renovate a Wetumpka facility to house inmates from the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. The facility is currently under federal investigation; a U.S. Department of Justice report released in January found state violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. DOJ said inmates at the prison live in “a toxic environment with repeated and open sexual behavior,” including sexual abuse and harassment.

Corrections would also get an additional $1.3 million for security locks and doors at prisons in St. Clair, Donaldson, and Holman.

The budget would also provide $250,000 to the Governor’s Office to hire an ombudsman for female inmates, who Orr said would function independent of the Corrections system.

“This is something that I think will be helpful to the state, to provide an ombudsman or inmate advocate for women prisoners, to give them a resource to have to hear their concerns,” he said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has been pushing the state to make changes to the overcrowded Department of Corrections, praised Orr’s work, but said officials had to realize that the problems could not be solved at the current funding level for the department.

“There’s only so much we’re going to be able to rely on as budget continues to shrink,” he said. “You will not be able to fund (prisons) at the rate we’re going, and hoping those problems will go away.”

The Alabama Medicaid Agency, which gets over a third of the funding from the General Fund — and covers about a fifth of Alabama’s residents — had requested $700 million for 2015, an increase of about $85 million over the current year. The Senate committee stuck with a proposal from Gov. Robert Bentley to give it $685 million, an increase of about $70 million. Dr. Don Williamson, who is overseeing attempts to transform the Medicaid Agency, has said they can make up the difference with carryover money and new ways of acquiring prescription drugs.

The General Fund has been in a seemingly endless crisis for the past six years, due to growth in Medicaid and Corrections costs, stagnant revenues and lawmakers unwilling to consider new taxes for the budget. About 10 percent of the General Fund’s revenue for 2015 will come from one-time sources. Orr said that fact was caused for concern, particularly for lawmakers who must draw up the budget next year.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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