By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
House Republican leaders who wanted to raise taxes, including Ways & Means Chairman Steve Clouse and Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn). The leadership was forced to negotiate with the far right of their own caucus who want no tax increases of any kind, and the Bentley administration, who wanted a fantasy number in excess of $300 million.
The leadership hoped to cobble enough moderate Republicans together that with Democrat votes they could pass a State General Fund (SGF) budget with $173 million more for the general fund than the so-called austerity budget that passed the legislature in the regular session; but was vetoed by Governor Robert Bentley. The proposed $1.79 billion budget would still have been a far cry from the $1.9+ billion SGF budget that Governor Bentley wanted but would have fully funded Medicaid, Corrections, Prison reform, Mental Health, State Troopers, and the courts. Other agencies would have taken a modest 5.5 percent across the board cut.
Somewhere along the line, the leadership were led to believe that Alabama Democrats were willing partners in plans to raise taxes on the people of Alabama. Those illusions were ended late on Monday when the House Black Democratic Caucus met and voted to support no new taxes. With a growing conservative GOP rebellion and with Democrats adopting positions outflanking the GOP from the right there was no way that the leadership could pass Monday’s Clause plan without Democratic help.
On Tuesday, the leadership responded to that move, which they viewed as a betrayal, by joining forces with their own growing Republican right to punish the Democrats by deeply cutting the Democrat’s prized Lyndon Johnson era “Great Society” program: Alabama Medicaid. The General Fund budget that unexpectedly came out of committee in the House cuts Alabama Medicaid by $156 million. Since the Federal government matches State dollars, that could amount to over $550 million in total cuts to the program, which provides healthcare benefits to poor children, pregnant mothers, families, and the indigent elderly.
State Representative Tim Wadsworth (R-Winston County) said on Facebook, “In a tense House Ways and Means committee meeting, committee votes to defund Medicaid by $150,000,000 and passes a budget with Medicaid defunded.”
Medicaid, however, has always been the problem in the SGF.
A poor economy means less jobs and more people qualifying, especially the newly disabled, for the program. As the amount of Alabamians qualifying for the program has soared the cost of the program has soared with it, eating up a larger and larger share of the SGF.
Rep. Wadsworth wrote, “Medical spending from Federal and State funding not counting funding from private health insurance policies was 3.4 billion dollars 9 years ago and last year it rose to 5.2 billion dollars. The upward spiral of healthcare costs charged by doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and drug companies has created havoc in the General Fund Budget.”
The House Minority Leader’s Chief of Staff Lance Latham told the Alabama Political Reporter, “It has come to my attention that some Republicans are claiming that they had a deal with Democrats to support their tax package and that the Democrats didn’t honor that commitment, which is why they came with the budget that cuts Medicaid. Let me state on the record, and please feel free to quote me, that no such agreement ever took place or was even discussed. The Democrats’ position has always been that they would not consider ANY tax increases without a commitment to expand Medicaid and let the people vote on a lottery.”
The Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Dario Melton (D-Selma) said in a statement, “It’s appalling that House Republicans are spending time on a bill to pull $156 million out of our Medicaid fund when we’re already passing up billions in federal dollars through Medicaid expansion. With the matching federal funds we’ll lose from these budget cuts, our rural hospitals will surely need life-support. That will impact all Alabamians, not just those who depend on Medicaid services. We’ve already seen a dozen hospitals close or planning to close their doors because of these budget cuts–that means everyone in the community, those with Blue Cross and those on Medicaid and Medicare will have to drive further for services, and the hospitals in major metro areas will become crowded and more difficult to get treatment. This is an irresponsible piece of legislation and it’s wrong for the state of Alabama.”
House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) said in his own statement, ““There’s a lot to be concerned about after today’s meetings. We can’t divert money out of the Education Trust Fund and have a guarantee that those funds will be replaced. The Senate Republican leadership has already suggested they will not put the money back after they take it out. And taking $156 million out of Medicaid would be a disaster for doctor, hospitals and patients, most of whom are children. In 136 years of Democrats leading the state, we never had these kinds of problems. If we had expanded Medicaid or passed a lottery in any previous year, we would not be in this mess now. Instead of raising taxes, we should let the people vote on a lottery so we won’t be right back in this mess next year.”
Speaker Hubbard told the ‘Alabama Political Reporter’ that gaming legislation would be a waste of time.
Governor Bentley told Al.com writer Chuck Dean in a news conference, “I am disappointed, very disappointed with the Legislature.”
There are seven days left in this special session; but it already appears that Bentley’s $302 million fantasy tax plan is all but dead and that the House wants to balance the budget by raiding Medicaid; while the Senate by raiding the Education Trust Fund. Some insiders speculate that this Special Session has been a waste of time and a next special session is virtually inevitable.
Both Houses of the Alabama Legislature passed a $1.62 billion SGF budget in the regular session; but Gov. Bentley vetoed it, creating the present chaos.