MONTGOMERY, Alabama — The Alabama House of Representatives has passed a general fund budget that slashes $200 million from state agencies after GOP lawmakers could not reach an agreement on tax increases.
Representatives voted for the spending plan 66-36, largely along party lines. Democrats voted against the bill after criticizing the cuts as irresponsible. Republicans described the budget as a "vehicle" as they negotiate with senators on possible ways to fill the budget hole.
"I'm trying to be optimistic, because it was very hard to put lipstick on this pig today," said House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.
The House-passed budget would make 5 percent funding cuts to the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Human Resources and state prisons. Other general fund agencies would see deeper cuts equal to more than 9 percent of their total state funding.
The spending plan drew sharp criticism from some lawmakers.
"People are going to die because of this budget. I want people to know that," said Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham. "This is disastrous in every way I can think. They know they need to pass taxes, but they don't have the guts to do it."
Todd, the former director of AIDS Alabama, noted that the budget would halve a $4.8 million appropriation to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program that provides life-saving medication for people with HIV.
"This budget is an embarrassment even for the Alabama Legislature, who has an approval rating of— let me think of who we would be just ahead of — Satan," said Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay.
Clouse said he doubted anyone in the House was happy with the budget approved Tuesday.
"This is just a vehicle to get a budget up to the Senate so we can continue negotiations to try to come up with some sort of reasonable budget to get things back to at least level funding," Clouse said.
With just seven meeting days remaining, time is running short in the legislative session to come up with a solution. Tuesday is the final day by law to have revenue bills through the House, Clouse said.
Clouse said revenue bills that might have a chance of winning approval included a cigarette tax increase, soft drink tax or a change to the business privilege tax, by giving a tax cut to small business while raising the tax on the largest ones,
Gov. Robert Bentley on Tuesday said he would veto the spending plan and criticized and lawmakers' refusal, thus far, to support taxes to fill a budget shortfall.
"This budget is unworkable It's irresponsible and it will hurt the people of this state," Bentley said
The governor has unsuccessfully sought $541 million in new taxes. House Republicans had thrown their support to a much smaller $151 million revenue plan— anchored by a 25-cents-per-pack cigarette tax increase — but the plan never got a floor vote. Clouse said support fell apart after senators signaled they would not approve the tax increases.
Bentley disputed that GOP senators were flatly opposed.
"It was said the senators would not take this up. Well, that's not true. I've talked to senators all last week. The senators I've talked to are willing to take this up," Bentley said. The governor said he spoke with every GOP senator except for one.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said senators would likely pass the bare-bones budget. "That's where we're headed unless there is a change of heart, and right now I don't see that," Marsh said.
The House Legislative Black Caucus unsuccessfully proposed an alternate budget that would steer money to Medicaid, the Department of Mental Health, prisons and public health while making deeper cuts to other agencies.