Budget, elections on mind as lawmakers begin '18 session

Associated Press

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is seeking a pay raise for teachers and state employees, part of a legislative agenda that she will roll out in her first State of the State address on Tuesday night.

The address to lawmakers on the opening day of the 2018 legislative session comes almost exactly nine months after Ivey was catapulted to the governor's office last year by the sudden resignation of then-Gov. Robert Bentley. Ivey, who had been lieutenant governor, became governor when Bentley stepped down to end an ethics investigation and impeachment push.

The raises were included in the budget presentation Ivey's finance director made to lawmakers. While Finance Director Clinton Carter would not confirm the raise amounts, the proposed spending in the budget indicates that she is proposing a nearly 3 percent raise for state employees and over a 2 percent raise for education employees.

While governor's proposed budgets are merely recommendations to the Alabama Legislature, lawmakers expressed optimism about providing them — but cautioned there are some unknowns that could impact the state's ability to afford them.

"This is the best budget we've had, in terms of dollars, since 2008. Things are good. When you've got money it's a lot easier to draft budgets so I'm optimistic," Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh said.

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said House Democrats believe the raises should be "maybe a little higher than what is being recommended by the governor."

"It's about time for teachers and state employees to have a raise, especially state employees. They've gone without for too long," Knight said.

The Alabama Legislature's budget office and Ivey's finance director gave fiscal forecasts that were a mixture of good news and cautionary warnings about the future.

"This is as healthy a budget as we've seen in a long time, but with that said, it would be irresponsible for us not to proceed with caution," Finance Director Clinton Carter said after addressing lawmakers.

The good news, Carter said, is that the state's two budgets have rebounded and surpassed pre-recession levels. The state general fund, which pays for prisons, Medicaid and other non-education government spending, will also begin the budget process with a boost since lawmakers purposely decided last year to leave $93 million in reserve.

The state also faces some looming costs.

Alabama lawmakers must begin grappling with the price tag of complying with a federal judge's order to overhaul mental health care in state prisons. The prison system is seeking an additional $80 million dollars over the next two years to increase the number of corrections officers and pay for an expanded health care contract.

A major budgetary question mark for lawmakers — and one with ramifications for tens of thousands of Alabama children — is the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides subsidized health insurance for children in lower-income working families.

Congress so far has only funded the program through March. House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said called it the "big unknown" for the session. If the state has to pick up even part of the cost of program, Clouse said that will cast a "shadow" over the entire budget.

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