Riley talks next step for state

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 18, 2004

Fresh off the success of last week’s special session, Alabama Governor Bob Riley is already thinking about adding more notches to his belt.

“They are still going to be opportunities to debate,” Riley said Wednesday via conference call. “There are a lot of other plans going up. I’ve asked my staff to look at what others are doing around the country.”

Despite passing legislation that cuts $50 million from the state’s insurance costs, Riley says much more work is needed to fix a problem that bleeds money from the state’s budget at an increase of $120-130 million a year.

Email newsletter signup

“It takes away our ability to do anything else,” Riley said. “If you look at what medical costs are costing the state of Alabama, that’s increasing about $120-130 million per year, you just can’t sustain that.”

The growth was threatening to swallow the state’s budget whole.

“If we don’t control this, you have to have additional revenues every year just to pay the benefits of all the money that goes in,” he said. “In our healthcare programs for teachers 10 percent of that total budget went to insurance. Now, it’s up to 24 percent. We could be paying a third of all the money we pay for education for health care benefits.”

While the governor’s plan, consisting of five bills, won’t solve the problem, it is a start.

“I think it’s a great victory for the people of Alabama for the taxpayers out there,” Riley said. “I can’t think of any reform that we’ve had in years that’s going to give us the potential for changing government like this one. I think we end up with a better program because of it.”

Because of planning and cooperation, Riley and the legislature were able to break records getting the work done.

The five-day special session was limited strictly to health insurance and pushed other, more controversial issues to another time.

“We had a focus that was unique, I had people tell me they’d never seen that happen before,” Riley said. “There were other contentious issues that were discussed by this commission

There were other issues that were brought up that were not part of this package. I said I want to go ahead and spend $100,000 (cost of a special session) to get this done. I want to put this on the shelf.”

Riley said it was important that the healthcare reform be passed in special session so it could not be used as a bargaining chip down the road. Instead, the legislators found room to compromise within Riley’s five bills.

“I think everyone said you have to give up a little something and we’re willing to do it, if it controls costs,” he said. “It went really well, I’ve got to compliment the legislature.”

One of the innovative provisions in the plan is an extra charge for state employees who are smokers.

“We put smoking in this just to put an example of what you can do,” Riley said before adding that the board would have the option of adding other charges for things such as obesity as well. “(We want to)

encourage people to move away from these healthcare problems.”

While the Legislature’s action will help fund state government in the coming years, Sanders predicted another tough year for revenues and state expenses. At the same time, Sanders doesn’t believe the state’s education funding will be prorated this year.

“We’ve got a big problem in the General Fund,” Sanders said. “The education budget looks a lot better, and I don’t think we’ll go through proration again.”

In the past two years, funding for education has been slashed across the board because of a lack of state revenues.

“Revenue for the Education Fund is growing at a much faster rate than revenue for the General Fund,” Sanders said.

Sanders chairs the Finance and Taxation Education Committee in the Alabama Senate and heads the budget process for each year’s education budget.

– BNI News Service’s Jonathan McElvy contributed to this report