- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Wednesday that Alabama could see dramatic reductions in state services - from the closure of parks to the possible release of inmates - if legislators refuse to raise taxes this session.

The governor described the consequences during a speech in Montgomery as he seeks to build support for his $541 million tax package.

The governor described a bleak picture of what could happen if lawmakers fail to plug a revenue hole in the state’s general fund budget. He said the cuts could include the end of 17,000 subsidized daycare slots, the closure of 15 state parks, reductions in services for the mentally ill and intellectually disabled, the closure of a state morgue, reductions in food stamps and a possible release of state prisoners.

“I know some of you don’t care about food stamps, but I’m telling you: If it feeds children, you do care about it. I care about it,” Bentley said.

“You may not care about prisoners, but when you have them in your basement, you’re going to care about them,” he said.

The Republican governor’s proposed tax increase has put him at odds with some members of his party. So far, lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for Bentley’s tax package.

Bentley said Wednesday that he is willing to bring lawmakers back in multiple special sessions over the budget.

“It may take three or four special sessions to do that. I hope not,” Bentley said.

Bentley said the changes he described are examples of what could happen without revenue and if state agencies are hit with across-the-board funding cuts of 11 percent or more. The two legislative budget committees are distributing a draft budget showing those cuts. However, lawmakers ultimately would likely pick and choose the reductions, choosing to slash some agencies deeper than others.

Bentley’s speech came as lawmakers began budget hearings with state agencies.

State prisons now house nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold, a level state officials fear could lead to federal intervention and the release of inmates. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said budget cuts would require the closure of smaller facilities, which would increase crowding to 220 percent of capacity. Dunn said that number heightens the likelihood of court-ordered intervention and would create an “unacceptable risk to security staff.”

State Health Officer Don Williamson said Alabama’s Medicaid program would likely no longer be viable with cuts, and reductions would include eliminating all services not mandated by the federal government, such as outpatient dialysis, adult eyeglasses and hospice

Department of Mental Health Commissioner Jim Reddoch said the cuts would dismantle a network of community providers that the state uses to provide services after closing multiple large institutions.

Bentley is proposing the first major revenue plan since Riley proposed a $1.2 billion tax hike in 2003, a measure that voters defeated by a 2-to-1 margin.

The budget troubles come after years of borrowing from other state coffers to shore up the general fund.

Voters in 2012 approved taking $145 million a year for three years from a state oil and gas lease trust fund to avoid deep cuts in state services at that time. That money runs out at the end of the fiscal year. Former Gov. Bob Riley in 2010 borrowed $161 million from a rainy day fund. That money must be repaid by 2020.

Bentley said it is easy for lawmakers to dig their heels in and say no because they signed a “stupid pledge” not to raise taxes.

“It’s harder to solve problems, because you have to think. …. And you have to say: ‘I’m going to do what’s right for the people of Alabama,’” Bentley said.

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