By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The outlook for the state’s current General Fund budget is good, according to state lawmakers meeting this week for budget hearings.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the General Fund budget committee in the House of Representatives said he did not expect any large COVID-19-caused cuts in the current budget as lawmakers look to begin crafting next year’s budget in the upcoming legislative session.
“This time last year, we were real encouraged before the world fell apart and, of course, we had to come back in May and revise what our plans and the governor’s plans were, downward. But things ended up better than we thought and we’re in OK shape now too,” Clouse told ADN.
Last year, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a $2.3 billion General Fund budget, which pays for non-education state agencies. In the first three months of fiscal year 2021, revenues in the state’s General Fund grew about .67% over 2020.
Revenue projections for the fiscal year 2022 General Fund budget won’t be released until next week, but Clouse said pay raises for state employees are not out of the question given the relative health of state coffers.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing legislators to be cautious when deciding next year’s budget, but Clouse said he was optimistic.
“COVID is still an issue but I think now versus last year this time, we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Clouse said.
Wednesday in the State House, lawmakers heard from law enforcement agency heads who were asking for budget increases to pay for more personnel and mitigating issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is asking for a $27.2 million increase from its $544.2 million 2021 appropriation. Most of the increase will go to two main purposes: professional services and fees and personnel cost and employee benefits.
The department is asking for an increase of $19 million for inmate health care contracts, $4.7 million to lease an additional 250 beds with programming to assist in re-entry and rehabilitation efforts and a $1.5 million increase to deal with what it expects to be court-ordered monitoring fees related to recent litigation.
Commissioner Jeff Dunn is asking for an $2 million increase to hire 34 support staff. Dunn did not give specifics as to what kind of support staff it would be.
Dunn explained to lawmakers the department has taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, but admitted it has taken its toll on staffing.
“Pandemic fatigue is real,” Dunn said. “The risk that our staff has to exposure in their communities is still great and our pre-existing staffing shortages are compounded on larger than normal COVID-related staff absences.”
According to Dunn, 981 staff members have tested positive within ADOC. Of those, 148 cases are still active and three staff members have died.
Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Hal Taylor is seeking an additional $19 million in 2022, up from $65.5 million this year.
About $7.7 million of that would be for driver’s license system modernizations.
“We have had the system we have in place now since ’03,” Taylor said. “We have put Band-Aids on that thing and software and hardware … it’s past time to bite the bullet.”
Taylor said $6.9 million would help him get 50 new troopers on Alabama roads. His goal is 650 troopers statewide. Currently, there are 507, up from 235 when Taylor became secretary in 2017.
“I have potentially 68 people who could retire this year, I hope they all don’t,” Taylor said. In the next five year, 183 troopers will be eligible for retirement.
“I need more coming in than going out,” Taylor said.
Pardons and Parole
Bureau of Pardons and Parole Director Cam Ward explained to legislators how he wants to bring a more balanced approach to how the agency carries out its mission while also keeping communities safe.
“We went from law enforcement to rehabilitation but never both, I think we should be both,” Ward said.
Ward said his focus on improving the agency will revolve around hiring more personnel to help with a backlog of paperwork, hiring more parole and probation officers, increasing the number of re-entry and rehabilitation programs and digitizing the agency.
Ward told ADN that he has asked for a $19 million increase over the $27.8 million the department received this year. Lawmakers cut the agency’s 2021 funding by about $21 million last year because it had a large carry forward of unused funds.
Ward said most of the additional money he’s requesting will go toward shoring up payrolls and that he’ll wait till next year before asking for more increases.
“Until we can show we are more responsible and instill more trust in the legislature, we’re not going to ask for more money,” Ward told ADN