By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
It was a good week for budgets impacting Alabama. At the State House in Montgomery, Gov. Kay Ivey signed the $2 billion General Fund budget into law and negotiators are putting the final touches on the $6.6 billion Education Trust Fund budget.
A fortunate financial year meant state lawmakers got to take care of some overdue needs, such as pay raises for teachers and state employees as well as increased funding for Alabama’s overcrowded prisons. More money to fund school security, mental health and hiring state troopers are other key features of the state budgets.
The Alabama Legislature’s four budget chairmen – Sens. Arthur Orr and Trip Pittman in the Senate and Reps. Steve Clouse and Bill Poole in the House – were able to craft spending plans that earned bi-partisan, near unanimous support from their colleagues.
On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Congress finally completed its work on a $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations plan that funds the range of government agencies and programs. The House and Senate passed the bill Thursday and President Trump signed it into law Friday afternoon.
From the military and space exploration to health care and agriculture, federal appropriations have a big impact on Alabama. The state’s Congressional appropriators – Sen. Richard Shelby, Reps. Robert Aderholt and Martha Roby – scored some major wins in this year’s bill. Shelby is the presumed incoming chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and his fingerprints can be seen on every spending measure that benefits Alabama.
But, the other appropriators work hard in their wheelhouses as well, and non-appropriators like Reps. Mike Rogers and Bradley Byrne are known to fight hard for funding that benefits their areas of East and South Alabama, respectively.
The bill contains the largest increase in military spending in 15 years. In total, $654.3 billion will be spent on national defense, and military personnel will get their largest pay raise in eight years.
Roby, who serves on Defense Appropriations, helped bring home key funding for military programs that have a footprint in her district. The bill includes $10.2 billion for 90 new F-35 aircraft, which will eventually be flown by the 187th Fighter Wing at Dannelly Field in Montgomery; $400 million for 8 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, which Sikorsky manufactures in Troy; a plus up of $90 million for 11 new UH-72 Lakota helicopters, which are the primary training aircraft at the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker; and $616 million for the THAAD missile defense system, which Lockheed manufactures in Troy.
Funds are approved for three new Navy Littoral Combat Ships, or LCS, which are built by Austal USA in Mobile. Strong funding is also included for research and development activities at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command at Redstone Arsenal, including an extra $100 million above the President’s request for a new space rocket propulsion system: the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).
Huntsville, where the state’s federal footprint is most significant, saw non-military plus ups as well. $110 million has been set aside for building a new federal courthouse there, and NASA received $20.7 billion, which is more than a billion over the president’s budget request.
Rural Broadband Development and Medical Research
The bill includes $685 million for the expansion of broadband internet through a pilot program administered by the USDA. Aderholt, who chairs Agriculture Appropriations where the funding originated, said it can work alongside a newly-passed state program to expand broadband internet into rural areas.
$37.1 billion is included for the National Institutes for Health, a $3 billion increase over last year. Alabama has many hospitals and institutes involved in NIH research, including the Richard C. and Annette N. Shelby Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Building at UAB.
Congress also set aside funding for timely and topical priorities. There is $21.2 billion in new funding for long-overdue improvements to the nation’s infrastructure; $2.3 billion will go toward school mental health, training and safety programs; $4.6 billion is allocated to combat the opioid crisis; and $1.7 billion will fund a down payment on border wall construction. Trump and many Congressional Republicans wanted more border wall funding, but they were ultimately unable to reach a deal with Democrats related to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
In the end, Shelby, Roby, Aderholt, Byrne, Rogers, Sen. Doug Jones, and Rep. Terri Sewell all voted for the omnibus appropriations bill. Reps. Mo Brooks and Gary Palmer voted no, citing concerns over too much spending.