Bentley: Special session is possible
Published 6:58 pm Saturday, May 7, 2016
By Kim Chandler | The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama lawmakers ended the 2016 session without action on three of the largest items: oil spill settlement division; Medicaid funding and prison construction. Gov. Robert Bentley said recently that he’s considering calling lawmakers back into special session later this year for another try.
“Everybody’s got to rest a little bit right now … but we certainly do not rule that out,” Bentley said. “We’ll have to make a decision on that. If we were to come back it would include the prison bill and it would also include the BP situation.”
Bentley’s $800 million prison construction plan — an attempt to replace almost all state prisons with new facilities — failed to win final approval. Lawmakers could also not agree on how to divide oil spill settlement funds — which could also provide extra money for Medicaid.
OIL SPILL FUNDS
A feud has erupted among lawmakers over how to use $1 billion in settlement funds that the state will receive over 18 years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Legislators from south Alabama have argued more money should go to counties hit with the most damage from the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Other lawmakers argued that since coastal restoration projects were funded with a separate pot of money, the settlement on the statewide claim should help the entire state.
“It’s two counties versus the rest of the state,” Bentley said of the disagreement.
Many legislators support the idea of getting a smaller amount of the money up front — an estimated $640 million __ by conducting a bond issue instead of taking $50 million a year. They just can’t agree what to do with the money
A House-passed bill would use the proceeds to pay back $450 in state debt and then give another $190 million to coastal road projects. The bill died after a Senate committee seemed to favor a plan to use $540 million to pay back all the debt and then spread the remaining $100 million in road projects across the state — with a double portion going to the two coastal counties.
“I do want to pay off debts, but I do think that Mobile and Baldwin counties deserve a little bit more of that,” Bentley said. “We’ve got to get people together and come up with a reasonable compromise.”
The state debt is from lawmakers tapping into other state coffers in recent years to avoid budget cuts during the economic downturn. By law the money must be paid back: $161 million to the General Fund Rainy Day Fund by 2020 and $437 million to the Alabama Trust Fund by 2026.
Hubbard said the state needs to address the issue at some point.
“The fact that we really need to securitize that payment so that we have some cash so we can pay down our debt is very, very important. We have that $161 million payment coming due very quickly. That is like a gun to our head,” Hubbard said.
The Alabama Medicaid Agency has said it needs $785 million in state funds to avoid service cuts next fiscal year. Lawmakers appropriated $700 million, with legislative leaders saying they could not longer cut other state agencies to fund Medicaid.
Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar said there would be cuts to the program unless additional money becomes available.
“We’ve got to start talking to CMS and having some really hard conversations about what we are going to do moving forward,” Azar said.
A side benefit from the oil spill settlement proposals was that paying debts early would have freed up an additional $70 million for Medicaid next fiscal year. Azar said that was disappointing that did not win approval.
The state passed legislation to delay the implementation of a switch to regional managed care to give some fiscal breathing room.
The centerpiece of the governor’s legislative agenda was a massive prison construction project. Bentley proposed to borrow $800 million to build four new large prisons — housing up to 4,000 inmates each— and close most existing facilities.
Lawmakers concluded the session at midnight Wednesday before Bentley could get a scaled-back $550 million bill, an attempt at a last-minute compromise, approved by the House.
Bentley said he intends to try again at some point.
“We were disappointed. We had all worked extremely hard to try to get our prison bill through. It’s a major part of our agenda. It still is. We have not given up on this,” Bentley said.