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New Ala. budget means prison hires, court layoffs

Gov. Robert Bentley recommended big increases for prisons and courts

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The new state operating budget approved by the Alabama Legislature will mean hiring for one area of government and layoffs for another.

The $1.7 billion General Fund approved by the House and Senate late Thursday night gives the biggest increases to courts and prisons. But it demonstrates that extra money doesn't always equal extra employees because the court system is looking at layoffs and the prison system is hiring.

When the Legislative session began in February, Gov. Robert Bentley recommended big increases for prisons and courts, and he proposed that many other programs get along next year with about the same amount they are receiving this year. The Legislature stayed relatively close to his recommendations.

The budget, which is awaiting the governor's signature, raises the judicial branch of government from $102.8 million this year to $108.4 million next year. Rich Hobson, administrator of the state court system, said the courts needed an additional $8.5 million on top of the $5.6 million increase to maintain the status quo.

Without some last-minute help, he said the court system is looking at laying off 150 of its 1,800 employees after the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. He said most of the layoffs will be juvenile probation officers and employees in circuit clerks' offices, which are already short-staffed.

"We are disappointed in the outcome," Hobson said.

He said the budget problem stems from the Legislature raising court fees last year. The Legislature predicted the higher fees would produce $25 million annually to fund the courts, but they are on pace to bring in only $12 million. Court fees are a major part of the court system's budget, besides the General Fund appropriation.

The new budget increases prisons from $372.8 million this year to $389.5 million next year. That increase of $16.7 million is about $3.7 million short of what the prison commissioner and the governor sought for the Department of Corrections.

Commissioner Kim Thomas said he appreciated the increase in a tough budget year and it will allow him to hire about 100 more officers to lower the number of inmates each guard has to supervise. It will also permit the installation of security cameras at the state's prison for women in Tuskegee. Thomas sought the cameras after reports of guards abusing prisoners, which are being reviewed by the Justice Department.

Thomas said he will have to delay plans to remodel an old state Department of Mental Health facility in Wetumpka as a lockup up for women. He had hoped to use it to reduce crowding at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.

The new General Fund is 0.4 percent larger than the current budget. That compares to a 3.6 percent increase in the $5.8 billion state education budget that the Legislature also approved Thursday. The education budget includes a 2 percent raise for K-12 employees, while the General Fund has no raise for state workers.

Senate budget committee Chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the reason for the difference in growth is that the sales and income taxes flow into the education budget, and those taxes grow when the economy is improving. The taxes that flow into the General Fund, such as insurance premium taxes, don't respond much to improvements in the economy. Interest earnings on state investments are also a major part of the General Fund, and interest rates are low.

"Money is tight," he said.

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