Bentley signs general fund budget

Published 12:56 am Friday, September 18, 2015

By Kim Chandler | The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Thursday signed the state’s general fund budget into law after praising lawmakers who voted for a cigarette tax.

Bentley said the spending plan was not perfect but was a step in the right direction for the state and will keep state agencies operating when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

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“I want to say to those that stood strong and stood tall and put people over politics and voted for a cigarette tax, I want to commend them,” Bentley said.

Lawmakers passed a $1.7 billion operating budget on Wednesday after months of negotiations over a $200 million fiscal shortfall. Legislators approved a 25-cent-per pack cigarette tax and a transfer of $80 million education funds to minimize cuts to state services. The hit to education is supposed to be partially offset by a series of smaller previously approved revenue bills and adjustments to a spending cap law that should free up more money for education.

The $80 million comes from a permanent shift of use tax collections, which now go to the education budget, to the general fund, a change lawmakers said they hope that will give the stagnant general fund a growing revenue source. The cigarette tax will raise about $70 million each year.

The approved spending plan maintains level funding to Medicaid, prisons, mental health services, the Department of Human Resources, the Department of Pardons and Paroles and the court system. Most other agencies will see cuts of around 5.5 percent.

The budget was a partial victory for Bentley, who for months argued that the state needed to raise taxes.

However, the money is a fraction of what Bentley initially sought from lawmakers.

Bentley began the year saying the state needed $700 million in revenue and in February asking lawmakers to approve $541 million in tax increases, including an 82-cent cigarette tax increase and changes to the state income tax deductions.

Many of his ideas did not get a vote in legislative committee.

The governor said the $700 million figure was reflective of a “perfect world.” However, he called it an improvement.

“We said, ‘Let’s bring some use tax over.’ That’s what they did. ‘Let’s raise some taxes.’ They first said they were never going to do it. They did it.”

Lawmakers and policy groups disagreed on how far the budget changes will go to fixing the general fund budget, which lawmakers struggle to fund each year.

“Barely scraping by for another year is no cause for celebration. Alabama is still shortchanging needed investments in education, health care, child care, public safety and other services that make our state a better place to live and work,” said Kimble Forrister, executive director of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for low-income families.