MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate approved a state operating budget Tuesday night that provides no cost-of-living pay raises for state workers and requires many state agencies to operate next year on the same amount they are getting this year.
The budget largely follows what Gov. Robert Bentley recommended when the legislative session began five weeks ago, said Senate budget committee Chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. The $1.7 billion budget is based, in part, on borrowed money and money anticipated, but not guaranteed, from the national tobacco settlement.
The Senate approved the budget 22-9, with support coming from Republicans and opposition from Democrats. The vote came after the Republican majority in the Senate voted to cut off debate by the Democratic minority after about one hour of discussion.
“Transparency and accountability walked out the door today,” Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross, of Montgomery, said.
“I took it out of your playbook,” Orr said, recalling the days when Democrats were in the majority and cut off debate by Republicans.
The Senate-approved budget now goes to the House for consideration.
Bentley did not recommend a raise for state employees in his proposed general fund budget for operating Alabama’s non-education agencies, such as state troopers, prisons, Medicaid and courts.
Orr said he looked at a variety of ways to help state employees, who last got a cost-of-living raise in October 2008. But he said he could find no way in a budget that is based on $149 million borrowed from a state trust fund last year. Alabama voters approved that borrowing in a September referendum.
“We have to be careful of how we spend borrowed money,” he said.
But he said the budget does encourage the governor to lift his freeze on merit raises for state employees. Employees who are not at the top of their merit system pay ranges used to be able to get a 2.5 percent raise each year for outstanding service. Those raises were frozen by Gov. Bob Riley in 2008 because of budget shortfalls, and they have remained frozen under Bentley. Orr said the ability to provide merit raises varies from agency to agency.
The biggest program in the budget, the Medicaid agency, would get $615 million for fiscal 2014, which is the same amount it is getting this year.
The second biggest program, the Department of Corrections, would get $390 million, which is nearly $18 million more than this year. Orr said that would help the prison system achieve the governor’s goal of adding 100 corrections officers and improving conditions at Alabama’s prison for women.
Orr said the biggest change from the governor’s recommended budget is in the court system.
Bentley recommended a cut from this year’s $102.8 million for the courts, but the Senate’s version increases the appropriation to $103.4 million for the new fiscal year. That is still short of the amount Chief Justice Roy Moore said he needs to maintain services.
The budget depends on the state getting an additional $48 million from the national tobacco settlement, which is not guaranteed. If that money doesn’t come through, Orr said, each agency will receive nearly 3 percent less than the funding level approved by the Senate.
Neither the House nor the Senate has considered the state education budget yet.
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