2015 legislative update: Alabama Senate committee eases Medicaid cuts, approves budget that Bentley already vetoed

Update: The Alabama Senate passed a no-new-revenue General Fund budget 19-15 Monday, but the House swiftly rejected it 92-2. The first special session ended without a budget, meaning Gov. Robert Bentley will have to call the Legislature back for a second special session.

Get ready for another special session. That seems to be the takeaway from Friday’s action at the State House, where an Alabama Senate committee rejected the House’s Medicaid cuts and voted 9-4 for a General Fund (GF) budget identical to the one that Gov. Robert Bentley already vetoed in June.

The budget, which includes no new revenue, would slash child care and mental health care. It also would end promising new reforms of Medicaid and corrections before they could get started. The full Senate likely will consider the budget Monday. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who chairs the Senate’s GF budget committee, urged lawmakers to amend the plan on the floor to prioritize funding for prison reform. (Read more about the Senate budget’s effects here.)

Lawmakers appear no closer to an answer on the GF than they were two months ago. With just two meeting days left before the current special session ends Tuesday, Bentley could reject any budget without giving the Legislature a chance to override his veto. Another special session would be needed to approve a GF budget before Alabama’s 2016 budget year begins Oct. 1, 2015.

‘Replacing a sorry budget with a crappy budget’

Senators gave a cold shoulder to the House’s budget, which would have gutted Medicaid with a 23 percent cut. A cut that deep could force Alabama to end its Medicaid program, State Health Officer Don Williamson said this week.

One in five Alabamians – mostly children, seniors, and people with disabilities – would lose health coverage if the state ended Medicaid. The effects also would be devastating for hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies and the state’s entire economy. (Learn more about what the end of Medicaid would mean for Alabama here.)

Several committee members spoke passionately in favor of protecting Medicaid. Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, said Alabama must fund the program fully to protect the state’s entire health care infrastructure. “Without Medicaid, Children’s Hospital may have to close,” Beasley said. “Without Medicaid, doctors’ offices may have to close.”

Sen. Priscilla Dunn, D-Bessemer, asked lawmakers to ease the fears of Medicaid patients who are “scared to death” of losing coverage. “We need to put more of our hearts into Medicaid,” Dunn said.

Perhaps the bluntest assessment came from Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who sponsored the prison reform law that needs funding before it can take effect. “We’re replacing a sorry budget with a crappy budget,” Ward said.

Revenue measures still face an uphill battle

The budget deadlock intensified when key parts of Bentley’s plan to raise new revenue to prevent massive GF cuts went nowhere in the House’s GF budget committee. The panel voted 8-7 Tuesday to reject a plan to increase the state cigarette tax by 25 cents per pack (from 42.5 cents to 67.5 cents). A bill to increase the business privilege tax on large corporations was on the agenda Tuesday but did not come up for a vote.

House and Senate committees have approved bills to transfer use tax revenues from the Education Trust Fund to the GF, but the measures face stiff opposition from many legislators. The use tax is equivalent to a sales tax on goods bought outside the state for use within Alabama. It is commonly discussed in the context of equipment purchases and Internet sales.

Many lawmakers strongly oppose shifting money from education to GF services. Alabama’s education funding is still well below its 2008 level, before the Great Recession, and its K-12 cuts and higher education cuts since then are among the nation’s worst.

The GF supports vital services like health care, child care, corrections and public safety in Alabama. The budget relies on a hodgepodge of revenues, most of which grow slowly even in good economic times. That leaves the GF with a structural deficit, meaning revenue growth is not strong enough to keep pace with ordinary cost growth. Without significant new revenue, Alabama will not have enough money to continue investing in vital services that make the state a better place to live and work.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Aug. 7, 2015. Updated Aug. 11, 2015.

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