MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Gov. Robert Bentley spent much of 2015 battling with lawmakers over his proposed tax increases to avoid general fund budget cuts.
Not so in 2016.
Bentley said Thursday that he is not proposing tax increases in the spending plan he will present to lawmakers next month. The governor said he wants to see what lawmakers propose as they begin another legislative session with a grim budget outlook.
"They know what they need to do. I'm going to let them do that," Bentley said.
Budget chairmen said Thursday that they see little enthusiasm for tax increases, which will likely mean cuts for many state agencies.
"We have to deal with Medicaid first. That is going to be the first big obstacle. Then we've got to deal with prisons," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark. "I think basically everybody else is going to be taking cuts."
Clouse said he could not predict the depth of those cuts. Lawmakers will hear official budget projections when the session begins Feb. 2.
Bentley last year proposed $541 million in new taxes to avoid deep cuts to state agencies, setting off a budget battle that involved two special sessions and a veto. Lawmakers eventually approved a 25-cent per pack cigarette tax, a transfer of $80 million education funds and other measures, but far less than Bentley had proposed.
Clouse said he thought lawmakers had done all they were willing to do on tax increases.
Legislators spent the week in budget hearings, listening to funding requests from agencies expected to far exceed available money in the general fund. The Alabama Medicaid Agency is seeking an additional $156 million to maintain services.
Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier told lawmakers that the agency needed an additional $23.5 million to maintain services. Collier, a former legislator and state trooper, said he was frustrated that legislators would proclaim themselves pro law enforcement while cutting law enforcement's budget.
"Public safety used to be a priority. You just don't see that anymore," Collier said.
Outgoing Senate general fund budget chairman Arthur Orr said the state is looking at another "train wreck" in the general fund and agency heads need to be aware of that when they make their funding requests.
Incoming budget chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said lawmakers will have to "cobble together a very difficult budget."
"As that starts to sink in, we'll see if people are willing or want to look at some other options. Right now, that with the mood of the country — you see what's going on in the national elections— people are pretty much frustrated and not necessarily sensitive to spending more or paying more taxes," Pittman said.
Two GOP lawmakers have proposed a state lottery as a way to generate additional money for the state. However, that money would not be available until 2017 at the soonest.
Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said Republicans were showing a lack of leadership. Alabama collects the lowest amount of taxes per resident of any state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Figures last year proposed a referendum on a 5 mill property tax increase — about $50 for a $100,000 home — to fund Medicaid. The bill did not get out of committee.
Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, proposed a "combined reporting" bill that would make it difficult for multistate businesses to avoid corporate income taxes by shifting profits to other states. That bill also failed.