Stripped-down budget passes major hurdle in state Senate

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The Senate budget panel passed a bare-bones budget on Wednesday, despite a grim picture painted by the heads of Alabama’s public health and safety agencies.

At a public hearing held by the Senate Finance and Taxation Budget Committee on Wednesday, state officials described the deep cuts in services and personnel they would be forced to implement under House Bill 135. Despite those concerns, lawmakers gave the budget proposal a favorable report by a vote of 13-0, moving the stripped-down budget closer to reality.

Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said  the budget would force his department to close two major facilities and gut the community corrections and supervisory re-entry programs. Dunn said that the closures would force 5,400 inmates back into the department’s custody, bringing the occupancy rate as high as 225 percent.

“I think the environment you create in the system (with these budget cuts) is a heightened security risk that is untenable,” Dunn said. “If you include another 5,400 inmates, you put the men and women who serve daily in greater risk. Inmate-on-inmate violence will increase, inmate-on-staff violence will increase, and I think we’re setting ourselves up for an even worse situation than we currently have now.”

Sen. Cam Ward expressed concern that the budget cuts would translate to “rolling out the red carpet” for a federal takeover of the state prison system. Alabama’s prisons are already the most overcrowded in the nation, a situation that forced the state to take on a massive prison reform initiative signed into law last week. Ward has said that those reforms would not be derailed under the proposed budget constraints.

Alabama’s mental health commissioner added that a 5 percent cut in his agency’s budget — a loss of about $5 million — translates to a loss in case management and therapy services for about 100,000 people.

“Several years ago, I could have absorbed 4 or 5 percent (cut), but now there’s no fat left to cut,” Commissioner Jim Reddoch said. “I can assure you that these people will end up among the ranks of the homeless and incarcerated. These are people whose whole life depends on receiving these services.”

With unanimous approval from the Senate committee, Chairman Arthur Orr said HB 135 will move to the floor for a second reading on Thursday and a full vote next week. Orr added that, with this timing, he hopes to see bills to increase revenue materialize before the Senate votes on the budget proposal.

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