No boost for Alabama prisons in House-approved budget
by Tim Lockette
Feb 27, 2014 | 3722 views |  0 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — The state's overcrowded prison system saw no increase in a $1.8 billion budget for non-education state agencies passed by the Alabama House of Representatives Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a committee in the Alabama Senate gave the go-ahead to an education budget that would give the state's teachers a one-time bonus of 1 percent of their pay in 2015 — which fell short of the 2 percent pay raise Gov. Robert Bentley has requested.

"We do have to balance the budget in a sustainable fashion," said Sen. Trip Pittman, chairman of the Senate's education budget committee.

Alabama runs its government on two budgets — one for schools, known as the Education Trust Fund; and one for most other state agencies, known as the General Fund.

At $1.8 billion, the General Fund is the smaller of the two, and for years it has been plagued by growing costs for the state's share of Medicaid, as well as a rising bill for the state's prisons, which are populated at nearly 200 percent of their built capacity.

In an 80-20 vote Wednesday, House members approved a General Fund budget for 2015 that would give the Medicaid program $680 million, $70 million more than it got in the 2014 budget.

Prison problem

Most other state agencies — including the prison system — would remain funded at or near their 2014 levels. That was a problem for some critics of the budget, who said the time has come for Alabama to act on its prison overcrowding problem.

The state has more than 30,000 people in some form of correctional custody, with more than 25,000 packed into prisons built for roughly 13,000. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated allegations of sexual abuse at Tutwiler Prison for Women, and warned the state that conditions there violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern that the federal government will take over the state's prisons. The Department of Corrections asked for $42 million more than they got in the House budget, money that corrections officials planned to spend hiring more guards and taking other actions to avert a lawsuit.

"I'm warning you right now," said Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham. "There's going to be a mass release of prisoners mandated for the state of Alabama."

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chairman of the Ways and Means General Fund Committee, defended the budget on the House floor. After the debate, he told reporters there would likely be an increase for prisons — possibly in response to a federal demand — before the budget makes it through the Senate.

"We're still talking," he said. "We're still expecting to get some mandates."

The budget also includes a 4 percent pay raise for non-school state employees, but only as a "conditional appropriation" to be paid out if state revenues exceed projections.

That's unlikely to happen. For years, the General Fund has come up short, and has been getting by on one-time money raided from various state funds.

"Even though we have a conditional, you probably won't get it," Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said from the House floor.

Education budget advances

Pay raises were also an issue in the Senate, where a committee approved a $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund, but trimmed an expected 2 percent teacher pay raise down to a one-year 1 percent bonus. The vote moves the budget on to the full Senate, but even in committee the one-time bonus sparked debate

"These men and women who are teachers, they are treated like they are nothing by this Legislature, and that is unconscionable," said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, a member of the Finance and Taxation Education Committee.

Pittman, the committee chair, said there wasn't enough economic growth to pay for a 2 percent raise in the education budget, which is funded by income and sales taxes.

"The economy has remained stagnant," Pittman said.

Also confounding the budget-makers was the Legislature's need to pay back the remainder of a $437 million loan lawmakers made from a state trust fund years ago.

The final payment on the loan is due in 2015, but it's hard to know how much the state will actually owe next year. Lawmakers agreed last year that if the state has an unexpected windfall in 2014, the extra money will go to pay back the loan — but the 2014 fiscal year doesn't end until October. Pittman said the state could owe $62 million on the loan next year, or more if the economy is worse than expected.

The one-time bonus drew criticism from Democrats on the committee, who had proposed a 6 percent pay raise for teachers, and who noted that the governor, a Republican, had called for a bigger increase than Pittman proposed.

Henry Mabry, director of the Alabama Education Association, said the Legislature's demands of teachers in recent years — asking them to pay more for their health insurance more toward retirement — amounted to a pay cut. If the state didn't increase teacher pay by 5.25 percent, Mabry said, this four-year legislative term would be the first since the Great Depression to produce a cut in teacher pay.

Mabry said in addition to cuts in take-home pay, teachers were digging into their own pockets buy supplies for underfunded classrooms.

"At the Hyundai plant, we don't have workers having to bring nuts and bolts," Mabry said.

Proponents of the one-time bonus said the state simply couldn't afford a pay raise.

"I'd like to make it 10 percent, but the fact i we have to live within our means," said Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville.

More teachers for middle grades

Other aspects of the K-12 school system fared slightly better. The state's schools would get $2.8 more for textbooks and $1.5 million more for transportation, and an additional $10 million would be spent to hire roughly 250 teachers for middle schools. The committee also approved a $10 million increase in the state's pre-K program, which Bentley has been hoping to expand to reach more of the state's children. The program got $28 million in 2014.

The state's $1 billion university system took an $11 million hit — but $10 million of that was from a single college.

Alabama State University, a historically black Montgomery school, was cut from $41 million to $31 million. The school is now undergoing a forensic audit amid allegations that the school mismanaged funds.

Pittman said the school could get the money back, under a "conditional appropriation" that would give ASU as much as $10 million if the state's revenue exceeds the amount budgeted in 2015.The governor would have the power to release that money, if it exists.

"There's going to have to be some accountability at the school," Pittman said.

The $10 million cut wasn't part of the governor's proposed budget.

Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said it wasn't fair to give Alabama State the bulk of the cuts.

""It looks strange that Alabama State was cut $10 million and all the others together were cut $1 million," he said.

A cut to JSU

Other colleges, including Jacksonville State University, faced smaller cuts. The Senate budget would give JSU $35.8 million in 2015, a cut of about $166,000.

JSU president William Meehan said the school was actually facing a budget cut of about $765,000 when new costs for health insurance and other services were taken into account.

Meehan told the Star earlier this year that the university had been hoping for a 5 percent increase, but was not likely to raise tuition unless the university saw a cut.

“We told students we would not raise tuition if we were level-funded,” he said. “I’m not sure we can keep that.”

Higher Education Partnership director Gordon Stone said cuts in state assistance to universities have increased the cost of higher education, discouraging people from going to college.

"We need these Alabama residents in college so the state can create the jobs it says it wants to achieve," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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