The Senate’s 2014 spending plan looks strikingly similar to last year’s budget, with most state agencies getting the same funding they got in 2013 — but that plan will work only if the state gets a $48 million windfall consisting of previously disputed money from a national settlement with tobacco companies in the late 1990s.
Senators voted Tuesday on two bills that would direct that $48 million to the General Fund — although past payments from the national tobacco settlement were divided among a number of agencies, with much of the money going to the Children First Trust Fund, a fund set up to help various children’s programs.
The move was a point of contention for Democrats, who accused the Republican supermajority of taking money from children and giving it to prisons.
“Once again the supermajority’s taking one-time money and raiding it,” said Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville. Last year, the Legislature passed a budget that included a portion of $437 million taken from a fund for state oil and gas revenue. That budget passed before voters approved an amendment to approve the $437 million transfer, leading to months of uncertainty about the budget.
Proponents of the $48 million shift said the money amounts to a windfall — a sudden release of money that had previously been in dispute — and wasn’t diminishing Children First money. The program would still get close to its usual outlay of funds, about $39 million, under a bill passed Tuesday.
Supporters of the $48 million transfer cited the need to fund the Medicaid system and prisons, two of the biggest slices of the budget pie.
Medicaid is level-funded in the budget bill, getting the same $615 million it got in 2013. The prison system would see its funding go up by $17 million to a total of $390 million in the budget proposal.
“It means a lot to children if they know granny is getting Medicaid dollars, and it means a lot to them that prisoners are not being released,” Sen. Phil Williams, R-Gadsden, said of the transfer.
Prison officials have long acknowledged that the prison system is overcrowded — at 190 percent of its capacity, according to prison system estimates.
Beyond prison funding, there were few major changes in the budget. Like the governor’s proposed budget, it would give most agencies the same amount of money they had in 2013. With the $48 million transfer, the state’s spending for 2014 would be only $2 million more than the $1.75 billion budget for 2013.
“Primarily, it’s the governor’s budget proposal with a few modifications,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate budget committee for the General Fund.
Funding for the Department of Mental Health would remain unchanged at $104.8 million in the budget, and the entire judicial system would see its $102.9 million budget increase by only $550,000.
The bill includes non-binding wording that calls on Gov. Robert Bentley to lift a moratorium on state employee pay increases under the merit system. Bentley announced earlier this year that he supported a pay increase for teachers, who are paid out of the Education Trust Fund Budget. Some senators, including President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said at the time that they wanted a pay increase for non-education state employees as well.
The Legislature can’t mandate the return of pay increases in the budget bill, but could do so in a separate piece of legislation, senators said.
“I don’t see it happening this session,” Marsh said. He said that savings from other legislative actions, including the reorganization of the state’s law enforcement agencies, could free up the money for raises in future budgets.
The budget vote comes as Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over the passage earlier this month of a school-reform bill that doubled in length in the hours before the final vote. Democrats have spent much of the time since then in a series of filibusters against GOP legislation, and Republican lawmakers have headed off those filibusters with sudden moves to close debate.
After beginning debate on amendments to the budget Tuesday, lawmakers voted to set a time for a vote on those amendments — effectively limiting debate to about 20 minutes. After the amendment passed, Democrats called for the bill to be read in its entirety, a process that took nearly three hours. After the reading was complete, senators passed the bill 22-9.
“We’re passing the most important document, the budget, and no amendments are being allowed, no discussion is being allowed,” Bedford said.
Orr responded that things were done the same way when Democrats controlled the Senate.
The budget moves on to the House for a vote.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.