- Associated Press - Thursday, March 20, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Legislature’s approval of the two state budgets is going down to the closing days of the legislative session.

Legislative leaders had hoped to complete work on the education budget before lawmakers left on spring break Thursday, but they couldn’t fashion a version that had broad support. The budget will have to wait until the Legislature returns April 1 for the final three meeting days of the 2014 session.

The Senate passed a $1.84 billion General Fund Thursday evening, but it will have to go back to the House, which passed a slightly different version earlier. The House’s review of the budget will have to wait until April 1 because the House had already left for spring budget before the Senate voted 30-2.

Both budgets are for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The Legislature has 30 meeting days in its annual session to pass the budgets. Republican leaders had hoped to have at least one budget wrapped up early, but disagreements prevented that. “You see why budgets are passed on the 30th day,” said Republican Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne, chairman of the Finance and Taxation-Education Committee.

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the $5.9 billion education budget. A conference committee of House and Senate members tried to work out a compromise Thursday, but failed. They will try again after spring break.

Pittman said a sticking point is how much extra money is necessary for health benefits for education employees to prevent them from paying higher premiums.

The House and Senate versions of the General Fund budget include $70 million more, or an 11 percent increase, to maintain Medicaid services for the poor and elderly. Most other state agencies would receive about the same amounts they are getting this year. The Senate’s version includes $250,000 for the governor to hire an ombudsman to deal with problems at Tutwiler Prison for women in Wetumpka. Gov. Robert Bentley said he supports that addition.

The Senate also voted 31-0 Thursday to provide state employees with a one-time pay bonus of $400 in the new fiscal year. That bill would also allow the governor to grant a cost-of-living raise of up to 4 percent if extra state money becomes available, which budget officials say is doubtful. That bill must also go to the House after spring break.

The chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee, Republican Arthur Orr of Decatur, said some recognition of state employees is needed because they last received a cost-of-living raise in October 2008.