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$15 billion day in State House


MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature was making about $15 billion worth of spending decisions Thursday as this session’s four major revenue spending bills near final passage.

Lawmakers are in a rare situation this year in that they have the 2024 General Fund and education budgets to approve, as well as two supplemental spending bills made up of excess revenue from the last fiscal year. All four were getting — or expected to get — final votes late Thursday night.

The package of bills includes the proposed 2024 $8.8 billion education budget and $3 billion General Fund, along with unprecedented current year supplemental bills totaling $2.8 billion for education and about $180 million in General Fund spending.

All four bills were headed to conference committees Thursday evening where differences between what the House and the Senate wanted in terms of spending could be settled.

Through the budgeting process, some expenses have shifted between the various pots of money.

The package of bills includes a 2% raise for state employees and teachers and tax rebates, as last approved by the House, worth $210 for individuals and $420 for couples. A bill to cut the state’s sales tax on groceries to 2% was also passed by the House and now awaits Senate action.

Education Trust Fund supplemental, budget

The unprecedented $2.8 billion ETF supplemental budget, which would allocate additional spending in the current year’s education budget, saw a number of changes as it made its way through the legislative process over the past few months.

As first proposed by Gov. Kay Ivey, the supplemental budget included $400 rebates to individuals for a total cost of almost $1 billion. The Senate reduced those rebates significantly, down to $105 per person for a total cost of $275 million, only for the House committee to raise them back up to $210 for a total cost of $550 million.

The Department of Education, as originally proposed by Ivey, would have been allotted $604 million for one-time expenses, $150 million of which would have gone toward capital improvement projects for rural schools. The Senate reduced the $604 million allotment down to $472.6 million, cutting the $150 million for rural schools entirely. The House committee increased the education department spending from $472.6 million to $480 million, but maintained the $150 million cut to rural schools.

Ivey’s proposed health care high school in Demopolis, which was allotted $31 million in her proposal, was cut entirely by the Senate, a cut that was maintained by the House committee.

Higher education spending, which includes numerous scholarship and workforce programs, was allotted $100,000 in Ivey’s original proposal, but was increased to $33.7 million by the Senate, and increased further to $46.7 million by the House committee.

Once introduced on the House floor, a number of lawmakers spoke on the bill.

Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, said that while he thought the proposal was “a really good budget,” there were certain inclusions that prohibited him from supporting it.

“I’m grateful for the raise for the two-year college employees, (but) I am disappointed that we did not find a way to create more than a 2% pay raise (for teachers), and that’s something I would encourage you to look at in the future,” Estes said. “Overall, I think it’s a really good budget, but I’d be less than honest if I did not admit my concerns with transferring $100 million out of this budget to prisons. Is that going to become an annual ask?”

Estes was referring to the $103 million – up from Ivey’s proposed $100 million – that was allotted to prison education programs, and said that while he understood that it still related to education, it was something he would struggle to justify to his constituents.

Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, also spoke critically of the supplemental education budget, pointing out what he considered to be a geographically unequal distribution of spending.

“This map represents singular projects — not a part of the school system,” McCampbell said, pointing to a large printed out map on the House floor.

Following well over an hour of discussion, Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, introduced a floor amendment that would increase funding for school safety by $10 million, an amendment that was approved 100-1, with Estes voting against.

The supplemental education budget itself ultimately passed the House with the same vote.

The $8.8 billion 2024 ETF budget, representing a 6.5% increase over the current year’s ETF budget, also passed the House, with both budgets due to be reconciled late into the evening Thursday between the House and Senate.

General Fund supplemental, budget

The $180 million General Fund supplemental approved by the Senate is less than what Gov. Kay Ivey and the House suggested earlier this session. It includes $50 million to a savings account and almost $40 million to pay off four state bonds.

“We’re trying to take care of the debt that we owe and save for the future,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said on the  Senate floor.

The document was approved unchanged 28-7 in the Senate Thursday, though several senators made their cases for certain projects.

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa asked that $23 million for a court-ordered expansion of the  Alabama Department of Mental Health’s Taylor Hardin Secure Facility in Tuscaloosa be put back in the supplemental.

“It’s an active project as we stand here today,” Allen said. “If we miss this timeline, we’re going to be paying a lot, lot more for this project.” 

Albritton pointed to a slight increase in funding in next year’s General Fund for ADMH and said the state cannot cover every construction project overrun of agencies.

North Alabama Senators noted a decrease in funding for equipment at the new Alabama Department of Forensics lab in Huntsville.

“We built that building, now we need to equip it,” Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville said. 

And Sens. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, and Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, criticized the lack of state funding for a whitewater park near Maxwell Air Force Base.  They said the project is critical to the base and would be an economic generator as well as an educational opportunity for area students.

Hatcher said outside of funding directly for state government, there was nothing in the record General Fund spending plans for Montgomery.

“How do you leave the Capital City out of both budgets, and how do you walk up to me with a smile on your face knowing what you’ve done?” he said on the Senate floor.

Barfoot, Hatcher, Givhan voted against the supplemental, as did Sens. Lance Bell, R-Riverside, Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville;  Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia; Rep. April Weaver, R-Briarfield.

The $3 billion 2024 General Fund had fewer Senate changes from what the House previously approved.

One significant change has gotten the attention of the Alabama Department of Transportation.

The Senate approved a $23.5 million transfer from ALDOT to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. That transfer has existed for years, but this year, ALDOT thought it would keep the money and planned to use it, spokesman Tony Harris told Alabama Daily News Wednesday evening.

“The governor’s proposed budget restored to ALDOT the remaining $23.5 million that was diverted to other purposes for more than a dozen years,” Harris said in an email to ADN. “We engaged in discussions during the past year about the need to end the diversion in order to match additional federal funds under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. ALDOT is relying on this $23.5 million to match $94 million in federal funds.

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