By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, July 19, the Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported that Alabama Governor Robert Bentley is planning a special session likely for August or September.
Former State Representative Blaine Galliher (R-Rainbow City) referenced the reporting and wrote on Facebook: “Governor announces Special Session for Medicaid will be called late Summer or early Fall.”
The Special Session will focus on Medicaid.
Sources have told the Alabama Political Reporter that the plan that is being bandied about is raiding more of the use tax dollars from the education trust fund (ETF), which is presently doing well due to the rebounding economy. Additionally there is talk of getting a lottery to fund Medicaid on the ballot.
Gov. Bentley told Lyman that his $800 million bond issue to build four massive new prisons will not be part of the call.
In 2015 the Governor called two special sessions to strong arm the legislature into raising taxes to help the troubled state general fund (SGF). Runaway costs to the Medicaid program have been eating a larger and larger share of the SGF since 2008. In last year’s special session legislators voted to raise taxes on cigarettes, nursing home beds, and prescription drugs. The road builders are pressuring the legislature to raise gas taxes to fund more road projects. If they did that and raised taxes for Medicaid that would mean that a Republican super-majority raised taxes THREE times in one four year period. Most political observers doubt that legislators want to run on that record in 2018.
The lottery is an income source that many in Montgomery are talking about.
Senator Jim McClendon (R-Springville) sponsored lottery legislation in the 2015 regular session.
On June 3, Sen. McClendon told a gathering of mental health advocates that one of the reasons we have a crisis in mental health and Medicaid is due to insufficient money in the General Fund. One of the biggest problems we have is that Medicaid is terribly short. Other areas of Medicaid are hurting even worse than Medicaid. Pediatricians in particular are not looking good.
Sen. McClendon said his lottery bill was a 31 word constitutional amendment that allowed you to vote on whether or not the State should have a lottery. The bill did not pass the House or the Senate; but it gave me an opportunity to talk with Senators. They wanted more in it. Rep. Alan Harper is doing similar in the House.
McClendon said that he and Rep. Harper got both bills out of committee; but the bills were not ready to go to the floor. McClendon said then that he has a comprehensive bill ready to go whether that is in a Special Session of in the 2017 Regular Legislation Session.
McClendon promised that if a lottery passes there will be some relief for everyone in the health care field.
A lottery would need to be voted on by the people on the November 8 General Election ballot. Due to a new agreement the state has with the federal government on giving deployed troops time to get a ballot and get it returned back to be counted on November 8, there is very little time for the legislature to be called to a special session, deliberate on the lottery bill, pass the bill, and then get it to the Secretary of State’s office in time for him to prepare the ballots and then get those to the Alabama troops fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in a timely manner. Some sources doubt that a September special session could possibly get that done in time. They say that the Governor would need to call the special session for early August to be sure that there is time to get that done.
Another idea that almost passed the legislature in the Regular Session is raiding the BP oil settlement money to prop up Medicaid for the 2017 fiscal year which begins on October 1. That would give the legislature time to work on a long term Medicaid fix in the 2017 legislative session. Of course the legislature has been using trust fund raids, prorating other departments, raiding education, and the Obama stimulus to prop up the problems with funding Medicaid since 2009.
Gov. Robert Bentley is already raiding $50 million of the oil settlement dollars to build a beachfront luxury hotel and conference center only three foot above sea level on the site of a hotel that was previously destroyed by a hurricane even though no money was appropriated by the legislature for that project.
Alabama Medicaid has announced that it was going to cut doctor payments to the minimum. Alabama used the minimum rate for years for doctor reimbursements; but then the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (better known as Obamacare) raised them for two years with the federal government paying the cost of the bump up. In 2016 a number of states let the rates bump back down to the minimum level when the federal government stopped funding the bump. Alabama Medicaid could drop those rates as early as August 1. Some fear that this could lead to an exodus of doctors out of poor and rural parts of Alabama where Medicaid is one of the primary payers.
Gov. Bentley has requested that the state legislature provided Medicaid with $785 million for FY 2017. The legislature instead chose to level fund the program at 2016 levels: $85 million less than what the Governor insists he needs.
(Original reporting by Bryan Lyman at the Montgomery Advertiser contributed to this report)