A House committee approved a $1.82 billion General Fund budget proposal Wednesday, a no-surprises spending plan that mimics Gov. Robert Bentley's proposed budget and keeps most state agencies at the same level of funding they've seen in 2014.
But the needs of the state's overcrowded prison system — now at nearly twice its built capacity and under the close eye of federal officials — may lead lawmakers to lay out more money for prisons before the budget is passed, said Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chair of the House budget committee.
"Prisons are the big question mark out there," Clouse said.
The state runs its agencies through two budgets, each with its own set of problems. One of those budgets pays for the state's school systems; all other agencies get money from the General Fund, which Clouse's committee oversees.
Revenues in the General Fund have been stagnant in recent years, but the cost of prisons continues to grow.
So does the state's price tag for Medicaid, the medical program for people in poverty. Medicaid enrollment spiked after the 2008 recession, and continues to grow, with nearly 1 million people on the program at any given time.
The proposed House budget would increase Medicaid's funding by $70 million to $685 million in 2015, which Medicaid officials say is just enough to get the program by.
"The $685 million will be enough to get us to the end of 2015, but we'll be absolutely broke," said state health officer Don Williamson.
Most other programs would get exactly the same amount of money they got last year, or a little less. That includes the Alabama Department of Corrections. The proposed House budget would give the state's prisons $389 million — nearly $7 million less than prisons are expected to spend in 2014, though budget officials have said that carryover funds would even out the amounts.
Prison officials had asked for $42 million more than that. The state's prisons now house more than 25,000 people in buildings intended for 13,000, with thousands more serving time in lower-security facilities and rented county jail space. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate conditions at Tutlwiler Prison for Women — where DOJ officials announced last month that the state had done too little to protect women from sexual abuse — and some state officials fear a court order that would mandate more spending to ease overcrowding.
Attempts to reach Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett weren't successful immediately after the Tuesday afternoon budget hearing. Clouse said he has spoken to prison officials about their needs, and expects the outlay for prisons to grow as the budget makes its way through both houses.
Clouse said it was too early to speculate on what could be cut to make room for more prison spending.
The House budget did include significant increases for a few other agencies. The Department of Public Health would get a $7.6 million boost, for a total of $79 million in 2015.
"There's been a need there for screenings for cervical and breast cancer for uninsured women," he said. He said the money would also increase funding for transportation for people who use dialysis.
The House budget would increase funding for the Department of Forensic Sciences by $1.5 million, to a total of $10 million. State officials have told The Star that at least 30,000 drug cases are backlogged as the state waits for evidence from drug labs.
"It's been under severe restraints the last three or four years, causing backlogs in court cases across the state," Clouse said.
Other agencies will have to hope for a good economy if they expect to see a boost in 2015. The budget proposal contains a number of "conditional appropriations" -- promises of spending that will occur only if state revenues exceed current budget projections.
The governor said earlier this year that he hoped to give state employees a 4 percent pay raise, their first in years. That pay raise is in the proposed budget as a $22 million conditional appropriation. But it may have to stand in line behind a $10 million conditional appropriation for prisons and a $75 million conditional appropriation for Medicaid.
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, proposed that the budget committee designate the pay raise as the first conditional appropriation to get money. Knight’s amendment was rejected, more or less along party lines, with Democrats supporting it.
Republicans said they too wanted the pay raise, but didn't want to tie the state's hands in dealing with prisons.
"My heart says go ahead and do that," Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, said of the pay raise. He said his head told him to leave the appropriations open.
The budget could reach the full House as early as next Wednesday, Clouse said. It would also require passage in the Senate and the governor's signature to become law. Both houses are now halfway through their 30-day legislative session.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.