- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - It’s coming down to the final days of the legislative session as state senators look for ways to patch a hole in the general fund budget and avoid the deep cuts to state services that Gov. Robert Bentley has warned about for months

Senate Finance and Taxation Committee Chairman Arthur Orr said $150 million or so in revenue bills have a chance of passing before lawmakers adjourn next month. Orr said those bills would “mitigate” cuts to state agencies for the coming fiscal year as lawmakers continue to look for a long-term solution.

“It will not solve the problem, but it will improve it,” Orr said. “Usually there is always a rabbit that we pull out of the hat about this time. There are no rabbits,” Orr said.

The plan some see as the last hope hinges on lawmakers agreeing to transfer a portion of state use tax collections that now go to the state’s $5.9 billion education budget, and give the money to the more cash-strapped $1.6 billion general fund. A series of smaller bills would offset losses to the education budget, Orr said. The transfer, which senators will vote on Thursday, would provide an additional $106 million, enough to level fund the state’s Medicaid program for another year.

Another bill would allow state boards to seek fee increases every five years to reflect Consumer Price Index changes.

The state of the General Fund remains a major unknown with just five meeting days remaining in the 2015 legislative session. The Senate budget committee voted out a $1.6 billion spending plan Wednesday. If any of the revenue bills win final approval, lawmakers could bring a substitute budget to the floor in the closing days of the session.

The House earlier this month approved a stripped down general fund that slashed $200 million from state agencies after GOP lawmakers could not agree on tax increases.

Bentley sought $541 million in new taxes this session but found little support among lawmakers.

House Republicans briefly supported a much smaller $151 million revenue plan- anchored by a 25-cents-per-pack cigarette tax increase - but the plan never got a floor vote. House leaders said support fell apart after senators signaled they would not approve the tax increases.

The House-passed budget would make 5 percent funding cuts to the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Human Resources and state prisons. Other general fund agencies would see deeper cuts equal to more than 9 percent of their total state funding.

The heads of major state agencies on Wednesday gave committee members grim descriptions of what those cuts would mean.

“Irresponsible is an understatement for this proposed budget,” Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier said.

State Health Officer Don Williamson said the state’s Medicaid program would have to eliminate all services not mandated by the federal government, such as outpatient dialysis. Provider reimbursements would also be cut significantly, he said

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the cuts will force the department to close smaller facilities, bringing several thousand inmates back into overcrowded prisons already struggling with high rates of violence.

Dunn said the crowding will jump from 185 percent of designed capacity to 230 percent.

“That’s rolling out the red carpet for the federal government to take over our system,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.


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