Wednesday, May 4th, marked the close of the 2016 Alabama Legislature’s Regular Session. Legislators passed the constitutionally required appropriations bills fairly early in the session which left time for debate on several high profile issues. Many of these issues were not resolved which causes speculation that a special session may be called later in the year.
A detailed analysis of several legislative initiatives will be discussed over the next couple of days; I- Fuel Tax (see Here), II- BP Settlement (see Here), III- Prison Construction (see Here), IV- Appropriations (today), and V- Other Legislation of Interest.
The Alabama legislature’s primary constitutional responsibility is to pass the appropriation bills necessary to fund the operations of state government for the next fiscal year. Usually, they wait until the very last days of a session in order to accomplish this requirement, however, this year they passed the two main appropriation bills fairly quickly with the General Fund Appropriations bill passing on the 19th legislative day (out of 30 possible days) and the Education Fund Appropriations on the 25th legislative day.
Of note, once these two bills are passed by both houses and transmitted to the Governor, the Budget Isolation Resolution (“BIR”) is no longer required before addressing other legislation. This is meaningful because to adopt the BIR, a bill must receive a vote in excess of 2/3 of the members present and voting at the time in order to receive consideration on the floor. The Republicans hold 26 seats in the Senate and 72 seats in the House, both of which exceed the 2/3 threshold when all members are present. This is why they are oftentimes referred to as holding a “supermajority.” If the Republicans are working together as a caucus, the BIR is not a problem. Absent the “supermajority”, the minority party (in this case the Democrats) could stop legislation from coming to the floor by voting against the BIR.
Enough with the parliamentary procedure lesson….
The Education Appropriations bill, HB117, sponsored by Representative Bill Poole (R- Tuscaloosa) provides $6.327 billion for FY17 education related expenditures. This is an increase of $337 million in spending over the FY16 appropriations. The cap imposed by the Rolling Reserve Act for FY17 was $6.432 billion (for more on the cap see this article). The actual projected funding for FY17 is less than the cap, so therefore, all of the $337 million increase will be spent and nothing will be put into savings.
Included in the $6.327 billion in education spending is the Foundation Program for K-12 students which is funded at $4.033 billion for FY17, an increase of $192 million over the prior year. By way of comparison, the highest funding for K-12 in the state’s history occurred in the FY08 budget at $4.15 billion and the next highest was $4.036 billion in FY09. The Education Appropriations were subsidized in FY08 by draining a proration prevention account of $439 million and in FY09 by $437.4 million borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund.
Though this year’s appropriation for the Foundation program would be the third highest in the state’s history, it is the largest non-subsidized amount.
The Republicans took control of the legislature in the 2010 elections. Their first regular session in the role of leadership was in 2011 where they addressed FY12 appropriations. Prior to this change in leadership, proration was declared in education spending in each of the 2008 through 2011 fiscal years. Since the change of leadership, proration has not been needed.
Why? One of the first legislative initiatives enacted by the new leadership was passage of the Rolling Reserve Act. This act places a “cap” on education spending based on the prior 15 years of actual revenues. Any actual revenue in excess of the “cap” is placed in a reserve account to be utilized during economic downturns and lagging revenues.
The cap has forced the legislature to budget in a fiscally responsible manner and as a result there has not been the need for proration.
The General Fund Appropriations bill, SB125 sponsored by Senator Trip Pittman (R- Montrose) provides for $1.847 billion in funding, an increase of $90.9 million over the FY16 appropriation.
By far, the largest appropriation in the General Fund Appropriations bill goes to Medicaid. This year Medicaid funding was increased by $15.3 million to $700.4 million over the previous year’s spending authorization.
Ummm….an increase of $15.3 million, yet the media reports that Medicaid is suffering from cuts or is “experiencing a shortfall.” The “shortfall” is derived from the department’s request of an additional $100 million this year over last year’s funding.
To put this into perspective the FY02 Medicaid appropriation was $231 million, which, when compared to this year’s $700 million, is an increase of over 200% in the last 15 years.
The next largest appropriation in the bill is that for Corrections which was funded at $412 million for FY17 compared to $197 million in FY02. Again, a nearly 100% increase over the last 15 years.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture & Industries was funded at $8.3 million in FY17 compared to $13.7 million in FY02, a 40% decrease. Likewise, the Alabama Forestry Commission was funded at $6.7 million in FY17 (a $300,000 cut from last year) as compared to $14.2 million in FY02, a 53% decrease.
The General Fund appropriation for FY02 was $1.2 billion, when compared to this year’s $1.8 billion representing a 50% increase over 15 years. Clearly, the growth in Medicaid and Corrections has swallowed all the growth in funding, and more, to the detriment of all other non-education functions of state governance.
What message does this send regarding our priorities? Timber and Agriculture are two of the most important segments to the state’s economy. At the rate that Medicaid and Corrections are expanding, the other General Fund agencies will soon be completely swallowed up. To make matters worse, the other agencies are forced to adopt higher fees and earmarked taxes in order to make up their reduced budget appropriations.