By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate has passed a largely level-funded General Fund Budget of more than $1.8 billion, responsible for supplying money for all of Alabama’s non-educational agencies and programs.
The Senate passed the budget for the fiscal year of 2018 by a vote of 24-4, fulfilling one if its constitutional duties a few weeks before the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.
The proposed budget level-funds most of the state’s agencies but includes a $3.3 million budget increase for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. The House passed a similar budget in March with little fanfare. The debate in the Senate was more raucous when Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, and Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, got into a verbal altercation over Williams’ proposal to move funds from the Tourism Department to Veterans Affairs.
Williams amendment would have taken money from two revenue-based Birmingham events, angering Smitherman who had argued with Republicans earlier in the day over redistricting plans for Jefferson County.
“Get off our backs. I’m tired of you picking on us. I’m sick of it,” Smitherman told Williams.
A few moments later, Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, requested the 130-page budget bill be read at length by the Senate clerk — and later a robotic voice — after his amendment to cut state agencies by 3.3 percent in order to supply more funding for the road and bridge construction fund with more than $60 million failed in a voice vote.
The attempt to delay passage of the bill angered some members of the Senate leadership after a long day of battles over redistricting in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
The reading of the bill lasted for several hours as senators attempted to reach a deal on the budget. Eventually, it passed with only a few no votes.
“This budget funds the core functions of state government while protecting taxpayers from any tax increases,” said Senator Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund committee. “The increase for the ALEA will put an additional 30 state troopers on the roads, making our highways safer.”
The budget found savings in several areas after the shakeup in the Governor’s Office earlier this year. A vacated seat for the lieutenant governor saves the state $60,000 while an empty SERVE Alabama saves more than $200,000.
The level-funding was a welcome relief for some lawmakers who were concerned that an amendment for the 3-percent cut would hurt the state’s already beleaguered Medicaid Agency. A three percent for Medicaid would have meant a loss of $20 million in state funding and $80 million in federal matches.
The budget retains a near-$90 million budget reserve as lawmakers look ahead to next year’s budget, when excess funding from a settlement with BP Oil over the 2011 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill could run out.
Lawmakers are also concerned that changes to the Affordable Care Act could bring big shakeups to Alabama’s Medicaid and Child Health Insurance Program funding matches.
The budget will return to the House for a concurrence or it will be sent to conference committee as the Legislature nears the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.