Senate approves $1.8 billion General Fund budget

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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)

The Senate Thursday approved a $1.8 billion budget that includes a one-time, $400 bonus for state employees, level-funding for insurance and additional money for security enhancements and improvements in the Department of Corrections.

The budget passed the Senate 30 to 2. The House, which approved the General Fund on Feb. 26, will have to decide whether to concur or non-concur in the Senate version when lawmakers return from a week-long break on April 1. If the House non-concurs, the budget will go to a conference committee.

The bonus would be the first additional compensation of any kind for state employees since 2008. Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, noted that state employees had seen their retirement costs increased 2.5 percent in 2011, and had seen insurance costs bumped up last year.

“It’s a small amount, but it’s certainly a start in the right direction,” Orr said.

The funding comes out of a $4.5 million line-item appropriation in the budget. Orr said Wednesday some state agencies would be able to provide the bonus from outside sources, while others would rely entirely on the appropriation.

Retirees would also get two percent bonus under the budget.

Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, introduced an amendment to a budget companion bill that would have extended a three percent pay raise to state employees. The $13 million raise would have been funded by the $4.5 million bonus money, and $8.9 million from the Departmental Emergency Fund.

The amendment was tabled on a narrow 15 to 13 vote. Republican senators Dick Brewbaker of Montgomery; Jimmy Holley of Elba and Paul Sanford of Huntsville joined independent Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb and nine Democrats in voting against the tabling motion. Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, joined 14 Republicans in voting for it; five Republicans and one Democrat were listed as present.

Bedford said after the vote that “Republicans have misplaced priorities,” adding later that “a one-time $400 bonus is not as good as a three percent (cost-of-living) raise.”

The budget provides level funding for the State Employees Insurance Board. William Ashmore, the CEO of the SEIB, said earlier this week that the board would have to make “tough decisions” on how to close an anticipated deficit.

The Department of Corrections will receive an additional $4.8 million under the budget, the bulk of which — $3.5 million — will go toward renovations for the Wetumpka Women’s Facility. The facility is expected to receive prisoners from the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of inmates at the prison. The budget also includes $250,000 for the Governor’s office to create an ombudsman to address concerns of female inmates in the system.

Orr said the facility, when completed, could hold up to 600 inmates. DOC said there were 702 prisoners, including four death row inmates, at Tutwiler at the end of November. The facility was designed to accommodate 422, a capacity rate of 167 percent. Another 250 inmates were housed at the Tutwiler Annex, in a facility designed to hold 128, a capacity of 195 percent.

“It will help the situation,” Orr said. “We know the administration is here, we know the administration is taking proactive steps . . . but that easing of overcrowding are, with the ombudsman, are good steps we’ve taken to address the situation.”

The budget also provides an additional $70 million for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, which consumes over a third of the General Fund budget and covers a fifth of Alabama’s residents. The additional funding boosts Medicaid’s budget to $685 million. The agency initially sought $700 million; Dr. Don Williamson, overseeing efforts to transform the Medicaid Agency, has said the agency can make up the difference with new methods of acquiring prescription drugs and rollover money.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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