- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama House on Tuesday approved a general fund budget after nearly four hours of debate focused on the lack of a pay raise for state employees.

Representatives approved the budget on a 72-28 vote. The $1.8 billion spending plan attempts to leave about $97 million unspent in anticipation that the state could face tougher fiscal times in the months ahead.

House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said the state is about to exhaust oil spill settlement funds that are currently propping up the Medicaid budget and there are also unknowns about what changes the Trump administration and Congress might make to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“We have $105 million from the BP settlement that we won’t have next year so we need to be careful with what we spend. The significant unknown is what’s going on in Washington with the Affordable Care Act,” Clouse said.

The lack of a pay increase for state employees was the chief issue during the lengthy debate. Democrats went to House microphones for several hours to argue that state employees were the ones being punished and there might be other places to trim money from the budget.

State employees have not had a cost-of-living increase since 2008.

“That’s unconscionable to think that people would work that long and not get a raise,” Democratic Rep. John Knight said.

Gov. Robert Bentley had proposed a 4 percent pay raise for state employees. The raise carried a price tag of about $19 million, but the budget committee stripped the proposal citing concerns about cost.

Lawmakers from the Montgomery area, which contains much of the state workforce, unsuccessfully tried to amend the budget to add a raise, or a one-time bonus ranging from $500 to $1,600.

Clouse said employees had gotten merit raises and the budget also pays for increases in their health insurance costs.

The budget, which would take effect Oct. 1, provides level funding to most state agencies.

The spending plan now moves to the Alabama Senate.

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