- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - State senators on Thursday approved an Alabama general fund budget after a debate where tempers flared multiple times.

The budget passed 23-4. The House of Representatives had previously approved the $1.8 billion spending plan. The bill now returns to the House where representatives will decide whether to go along with mostly minor Senate changes. The debate saw several squabbles among members as lawmakers bristled at proposals to shift money from agencies or other Senate districts.

“Who knows why things go sideways sometimes? The important thing is we got back on track,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said.

Democratic Sen. Rodger Smitherman sharply criticized one senator’s unsuccessful proposal to take $600,000 from Birmingham tourism projects to boost spending on veterans.

“I’m tired of you picking on us. I’m sick of it,” Smitherman said. The budget debate came after a redistricting plan filled with partisan rancor over how the Birmingham-area was divided.

Senators also rejected an amendment that would have cut state agencies’ funding by 3.4 percent to in order to boost highway spending by $63 million.

Republican Sen. Paul Sanford of Huntsville said he wanted to return money that had been shifted from the highway department to other government spending. Sanford argued that was a better alternative than the gas tax increase that some lawmakers have proposed this session.

Opponents said the crowded prison system and the state Medicaid program could not absorb the cut.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, asked Sanford if he thought the prison system could withstand the financial blow.

“I believe they can,” Sanford said.

“Which inmates are we going to let go?” Ward retorted.

Sanford delayed a budget vote for about two hours by having the bill read aloud on the Senate floor.

Instead of spending all the money available, lawmakers are attempting to keep about $90 million in reserve. 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.

The Senate also zeroed out Serve Alabama, a small state agency that became part of scandal surrounding the state’s former governor.

The agency coordinates volunteer services and had previously been led by Jon Mason under Gov. Robert Bentley. Bentley resigned last month amid an impeachment push in the fallout of an alleged affair with Mason’s wife. Bentley also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance violations to end a state investigation.

The agency had a budget of $159,114 this year. Gov. Kay Ivey dismissed Mason from her cabinet.

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