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Alabama’s new budget: No one really wins but it’s a bandaid for now

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It took two special sessions, but lawmakers finally passed a budget and Governor Robert Bentley has signed it.  The governor says the $1.7 billion budget isn’t perfect, but said lawmakers made important changes that were needed.

Now the question is, which agencies were cut the most?  Three to five percent cuts may not seem like a lot, but the amount is significant if you’ve already been cut by up to 40 percent in recent years.

The general consensus from lawmakers in north Alabama: It’s been an exhausting year and the outcome is certainly short of rosy.  The entities cut obviously aren’t happy but they will be able to keep the doors open.  After this year, that in itself is a relief to many legislators.

Out of 101 state agencies, Medicaid, including reforms and adjustments was level-funded from last year.  State Rep. Mike Ball of Madison says he was chiefly concerned with the ability to preserve funding for courts and corrections.

“It was just absolutely necessary that we funded the corrections and the prison reforms that we did; that we beefed up our parole and probations officers,” said Rep. Ball. “We’re over 180 percent capacity and the federal government was about to take over our prison system.”

We also heard much trepidation surrounding funding for Alabama State Parks and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, both of which Ball says will be able to survive, including the Alabama Department of Forensics lab here in Huntsville.

“There’s still a lot of work ahead of us. I think my greatest fears have been averted,” said Ball.

Fear of the unknown is one thing, however.  These cuts are tangible and the employees feel them.

WHNT News 19 called and emailed several state departments Thursday for reaction to how the budget cuts will impact them.  Some replied to say they were still working to see how things would play out.

Alabama State Parks Marketing Specialist Kevin Jones said he and fellow staff are grateful to citizens who called and emailed legislators.  They are still sorting out how the cuts will play out, and even more frustrating, they’ll have to go through this again next March.

“We understand that they have a big challenge, trying to balance the General Fund, but we’ve taken it on the chin for five years in a row and we have nothing left to give,” said Jones.

Winners and Losers

No one really won, according to this take on the budge ramifications from Al.com’s Kyle Whitmire.

Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur said they were able to keep the cuts to around five percent.

“Some agencies received a little bit lower cut and others a little bit higher. We were able to include language that would make funding for the Department of Conservation contingent on keeping any parks with a hotel facility on them, keeping those parks open,” said Sen. Orr.

State law enforcement will keep its doors open and Medicaid was level funded from last year, including 2015 reforms.

Gov. Bentley has said regional care organizations (RCO’s) would help contain the climbing cost of Medicaid.  The only problem is that the new budget doesn’t fund those organizations, so hospitals and their patients are losing out as well, depending on who you ask.

“Those RCO’s should be able to, you know if people need care then the RCO’s can manage where they go rather than so many people flooding the emergency rooms and a lot of other things so. We really had to get a handle on it, we are limited in a lot of decisions we make regarding Medicaid because of federal regulations,” said Rep. Ball.

Ask a state employee who the biggest losers are as a result of the budget and they’ll have one swift answer for you.  It’s been seven years since state employees have gotten a cost of living raise and they’ll not get one this year either.  Their contribution toward their health insurance, though?  That will be going up.

Ball added this about the situation.

“I think it’s important that Governor Bentley and the executive branch make those cuts very wisely and I hope they search very strongly in their administration there in Montgomery, in their buildings and do everything they can to minimize the impact on the people of Alabama,” Ball added.