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January 15, 2014

Bentley's budgets would increase education funding

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley proposed budgets Wednesday that would increase funding for public education and Medicaid while requiring most state agencies to get by next year with about the same amount they are receiving this year.

Bentley's state finance director, Bill Newton, outlined the governor's proposals of the second day of the Legislature's election-year session.

"The governor considers them to be conservative. The governor considers them to be adequate," Newton said at a news conference.

Bentley's state General Fund budget for the next fiscal year would spend $1.8 billion on non-education agencies, up from $1.78 billion this year. It includes a $70 million increase for Medicaid — $15 million short of the amount state Health Officer Don Williamson says he will need to maintain services. Newton said cost savings will be necessary in the medical program for the poor and elderly.

Legislative leaders had been expecting to cut General Fund spending because of an anticipated decline in tax revenue. But state Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican and chairman of the Senate's General Fund budget committee, said Bentley dipped into various funds with surpluses to make up the difference.

"The governor has found accessible funds to help the General Fund considerably," he said.

Orr said he's concerned about the stagnant prison system budget. State Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas had been seeking extra money to hire 100 more security guards, increase their salaries to reduce turnover and improve security at Alabama's prisons, which operate at nearly twice their designed capacity.

Bentley's budget plan includes a cost-of-living raise of up to 4 percent for employees of state agencies, but it is conditioned on the state taking in more revenue than expected. Bentley would make the call on whether to spend any extra money on raises. Republican legislative leaders said extra revenue is doubtful.

Bentley's proposed education budget is nearly $6 billion. That's up from $5.8 billion in appropriations this year. K-12 schools would get a 4 percent increase, two-year schools 3 percent more and universities 1 percent more.

Bentley's budget plan is based on giving K-12 and community college employees a 2 percent cost-of-living raise. Republican Trip Pittman of Daphne, chairman of the Sent education budget committee, said he's still evaluating whether that $73 million expenditure can be made.

The governor's budget also includes a $10 million expansion of the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds. That could add about 1,900 students.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said expanding the pre-kindergarten program has broad legislative support.

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