Ala. House passes $80 million increase for prisons, employees' pay raise
Alabama's prison system, needing more COs, would get the biggest increase under bills that advanced in the Legislature
By Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alabama's prison system, needing costly improvements in mental health care for inmates and more correctional officers, would get the biggest increase under spending bills that advanced in the Legislature today.
The House of Representatives passed a budget that calls for spending $2 billion from the General Fund next year, $167 million more than this year.
The prison system would get a $30 million supplement for this year's budget and a $56 million increase for next year, up to $472 million. The Department of Corrections budget is the second largest line item in the General Fund behind the Alabama Medicaid Agency, which would get $755 million.
The House also approved a 3 percent cost of living raise for state employees, which would be their first in a decade.
The Senate had passed the same legislation a few weeks ago. But the bills have changed and will have to be reconciled by the two chambers.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chairman of the House budget committee, said he believes any differences between the House and Senate versions are minor.
Clouse said a decision to carry over $93 million from this year's budget, plus some growth in revenue from online sales taxes and insurance premium taxes, helped cover the rising costs for prisons and the other increases.
Last year, a federal judge found mental health care in Alabama's prisons "horrendously inadequate." The state is now working to come up with a plan that will satisfy the court and intends to roughly double the mental health staff in prisons.
"The key on the prison situation is we know whatever the solution is and whatever is agreed upon, it's going to be money and it's going to be lots of money," Clouse said.
Other key increases would include a $9 million increase for the Department of Mental Health, to $118 million, and a $3.2 million increase for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to hire at least 30 new state troopers. That would bring ALEA's total budget from the General Fund to $52 million.
Medicaid would get a $54 million increase, to $755 million. But Medicaid also got a $105 million one-time boost in BP oil spill settlement money this year, so the total next year is actually less. Prescription drug costs have been lower than expected for Medicaid and enrollment for the agency has leveled off with the improving economy.
Looking ahead, Clouse said the increased funding for prisons will be recurring, which is one reason he said he expects the 2020 budget to be more difficult than this year's.
"I think it's going to be a very tough year next year," Clouse said.
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