Prisons, Medicaid request large portions of budget

Published 10:42pm Wednesday, February 9, 2011

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Two state agencies made massive budget requests Wednesday for the next fiscal year that could devour more than 70 percent of money available for all non-education state services.

Acting Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas asked legislative budget committees for almost $419 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That’s a more than $70 million increase from this year’s budget.

Earlier Wednesday, Medicaid Commissioner Bob Mullins told budget committees the agency needs $700 million for the coming fiscal year. That’s twice what the agency received for the current year.

The requests came to $1.19 billion or about 73 percent of the $1.6 billion General Fund budget for the current year. Legislative budget experts have said the size of the budget for non-education agencies may have to be reduced next year.

“I don’t know where they think it’s going to come from,” Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said after hearing the budget requests. He said he doesn’t anticipate the Republican-controlled House and Senate will consider raising taxes to pay for Medicaid and prisons. But without that, Rogers said he can see the state facing dire circumstances, such as federal courts ordering the release of inmates or Medicaid not being able to pay for medicine or other care for low-income residents.

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, said it’s important for the Legislature to keep adequately funding Medicaid.

“I hope we protect that budget and not do anything that causes anyone to leave the Medicaid rolls,” Coleman said.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate committee that prepares the General Fund budget, told legislators the two budget requests illustrate the difficulties lawmakers face in balancing the budgets.

Thomas said later that he realizes he may have to trim the budget request for prisons, but doesn’t know what would be cut.

During his presentation he told lawmakers that Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, understaffed and in many cases inmates are in facilities built more than 40 years ago.

Thomas said the increases are needed partly to hire more guards and to give merit raises to some corrections employees. He said the cost of medical care for inmates is increasing and that many of the department’s aging vehicles, many used to transport prisoners, need to be replaced.

Mullins said the increased funding for Medicaid is needed to offset the loss of stimulus money, an expected increase in Medicaid patients and a reduction in how much money the federal government puts up to match state funds.

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