State funding problems for prisons, Medicaid, courts - ABC 33/40 - Birmingham News, Weather, Sports

State funding problems for prisons, Medicaid, courts

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MONTGOMERY - AL -

For years, Alabama leaders have been warned by the US Department of Justice to correct the jail overcrowding problem. But the general fund budget faces an 83 million dollar shortfall, and the Alabama Department of Corrections needs more money.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says federal courts will step in immediately if the prison system faces any further cuts. He says the same goes for Medicaid.

Prisons and Medicaid make up sixty percent of the budget. That leaves the state court system vulnerable to more cuts.

Alabama's prisons are overcrowded and under funded.

"If the legislature doesn't do something, the courts are going to do it for us. It's going to get taken care of," said Senator Cam Ward, (R) Alabaster.

Prisons are at a 192 percent capacity.

Ward says it would require approximately six additional prisons to fix the problem. That alone would drain half the general fund.

"If you cut too much lower in the amount you pay per inmate per day, you risk violating the Eighth Amendment and that's usually when courts take over the system," he said.

Medicaid cuts could also trigger court involvement. That leaves some healthcare programs and the courts open to possible cuts.

Ward wants to bring in a company to assess the prison problem and develop a plan for free.

But Democrats believe additional revenue is the answer. They're proposing a cigarette tax to fund Medicaid and a lottery to fund schools. Both would require a statewide vote.

"There's going to have to be some additional revenue there. We have to find a way to increase revenue without raising taxes," said House Minority Leader Representative Craig Ford, (D) Gadsden.

Lawmakers may also have to get creative with the education budget. There's an additional 134 million dollars available this year. But that's not enough to cover even a four percent teacher pay raise and certainly not the billion dollars worth of cuts made over the last few years.

"Every dollar we appropriate is an investment and that investment needs to yield a return relative to the education of children," said House Ways and Means Chairman Representative Bill Poole, (R) Tuscaloosa.

Every dollar must also yield an even bigger return on the general fund.

"We aren't going to do this overnight. We have to start somewhere," said Ward.

The governor will announce some of his plans for the budgets during the State of the State at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

It will be streamed live on ABC3340.com.

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