published Friday, June 10th, 2011

Alabama lawmakers OK austere budget on last day

MONTGOMERY, Ala.—The Alabama Legislature gave final approval Thursday to austere budgets to run public schools and to maintain most non-education state services like Medicaid, prisons and state troopers.

The House on the final day of the regular session Thursday voted 83-15 to give final approval to a $1.8 billion General Fund budget that restores most funding to Medicaid, which had been cut earlier. Later both the House and Senate approved a $5.58 billion education budget.

Gov. Robert Bentley had made some cuts in the education budget in case lawmakers did not pass a bill that helps balance both budgets by requiring school employees and state workers to pay 50 percent more toward their retirement benefits. That will amount to about 7.5 percent of their salaries.

That bill passed the Legislature Thursday afternoon, and the House and Senate gave final approval to the budget without considering Bentley’s proposed education cuts.

Bentley, a retired physician, had made cuts to tourism and other agencies to restore some Medicaid funding in the General Fund budget. Those cuts were needed.

Democrats complained that the budgets were balanced by hurting employees and teachers who will have to pay more for their retirement.

But House Speaker Mike Hubbard defended the budgets, saying taxpayers are paying about $2.2 billion for retirement and health insurance benefits for state employees.

“I think this was the fiscally responsible thing to do,” Hubbard said of making employees pay more for their retirement benefits.

The budgets were the first passed under the new Republican leadership in the House and Senate and came in a tight budget year when lawmakers struggled to find the revenue to balance the spending plans.

“I think we did as good of a job as possible on these budgets considering the circumstances,” Hubbard said.

The Senate passed a bill that would help balance the General Fund budget by revamping Alabama’s system of providing defense lawyers for indigent defendants.

The Senate voted 32-0 for the measure to have lawyers paid $70 an hour for representing a client who can’t afford one. It saves money by preventing attorneys from charging for overhead costs such as power bills or rent. The sponsor, Republican Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster, said it would save at least $23 million a year.

The indigent defense bill still must receive final approval in the House Thursday night.

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