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May 4, 2017 8:00 AM, EDT

Alabama Senate Committee Proposes Moving Road Funds; Cutting State Agencies

Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Flickr

An Alabama Senate committee voted May 3 to move $63.5 million in road and bridge funds from the General Fund to the Department of Transportation, a move that would cut funding to state agencies.

The effect would be spread across all state agencies that depend on the General Fund, reducing their shares by 3.4% for the budget year that starts Oct. 1.

The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee approved the amendment by Sen. Paul Sanford, (R-Huntsville), on an 8-6 vote.

The committee then approved the budget, putting it in line for consideration by the full Senate as early as May 4.

The road and bridge fund is supported by the gasoline tax and related taxes and fees. Amendment 354 of the state Constitution restricts use of the fund to road and bridge construction and maintenance and enforcement of traffic safety laws.

For years, the Legislature has used the fund to help support the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the state court system.

Before Sanford's amendment, next year's budget would have allocated $35 million to the state court system and $28.5 million to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Sanford said it was a good time to reconsider the use of the road and bridge fund because legislative leaders, Gov. Kay Ivey and key business groups are advocating for a gasoline tax increase, saying it's needed to support road and bridge construction.

"For going on six or seven years now we've transferred $63.5 million away from the Department of Transportation to fund other government services," Sanford said. "There's been people saying we've got to have a gas tax, we need to do roads and bridges while we have been funneling that much money away.

"It accumulates to almost half a billion dollars at this point. So I decided rather than be disingenuous with the people of the state and say we need to pass a gas tax so we can take money out of the back side of the Department of Transportation, that I'd put the money back in the Department of Transportation and then the citizens can decide [to] do [what] they think they need a tax to fund the rest of government services."

Sanford's amendment would spread the loss of the $63.5 million to the General Fund evenly across agencies, including ALEA and the court system.

Alabama Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar issued a statement in response to being asked how the budget cut would affect the agency. Medicaid was to receive $700 million from the General Fund before the amendment.

"As Medicaid is a very bare-bones agency, any potential cut is a concern," Azar said. "A 3.4% cut off of the $701 million appropriation would be $24 million. This cut would reduce our overall federal and state budget by approximately $84 million.  We will continue to monitor the budget and the impact on Medicaid."

Senate budget Chairman Trip Pittman, (R-Montrose), who voted for the amendment, said he was surprised it passed. Pittman said it brought to light an important issue — that the state is using road and bridge funds to support other agencies.

"There's a lot of things in the budget that have been manipulated over the years in order to continue the funding without dealing with the challenges," Pittman said. "And right now, we have $63 million of the highway trust fund money that's going into other components of the General Fund budget. So I think it's something that people need to realize and it's an option."

Pittman said the amendment would be reconsidered when the budget is debated on the Senate floor, which he expects to happen May 4.

House General Fund budget Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) said on the House floor that the budget approved by the Senate committee was not acceptable.

The budget is a revised version of the spending plan that passed the House in March. That bill would have spent $1.84 billion from the General Fund, about the same as this year.

Besides Sanford and Pittman, those who voted in favor of the amendment were Sens. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile), Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison), Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro), Tim Melson, (R-Florence), Arthur Orr, (R-Decatur) and Larry Stutts, (R-Sheffield).

Voting no were Sens. Greg Albritton (R-Range), Billy Beasley (D-Clayton). Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham), Priscilla Dunn (D-Bessemer) and Bobby Singleton, (D-Greensboro).