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Misgivings few as state

budget gets thumbs up

By BETH LAKEY

Staff Writer

May 3, 2000 10 PM

For the first time in nine years, the state’s General Fund budget was approved without a conference committee.

Traditionally, the Alabama Legislature waits until the last day of the session to pass the budget.

This year, the $1.2 billion state operating budget was approved days before May 15, which is the last day of the regular session.

"It is a significant achievement," State Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, said of passing the budget without any "snares."

Mitchell believes the reason for it passing without a conference committee is because "most legislators had input into this budget," whereas committee chairman have primarily drawn up the budget in the past.

"I think this is a fairly lean budget," he said, adding it is a "good" one.

State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, was pleased the budget was passed without the need for a conference committee.

"I think it’s a good budget," Boothe said. "We gave raises where we could.

He said not forcing a conference committee shows both houses of the Legislature are "trying to do what’s in the best interest of the state."

The General Fund for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 would spend $112 million more than has been spent this year, which is a 10 percent increase for non-education agencies.

On Tuesday, state representatives voted 87-9 in agreement with the Senate’s changes, avoiding a conference committee to iron out differences, and sent the budget to Gov. Don Siegelman for his final approval.

Now, in his hands, Siegelman could amend the budget in the final four meeting days of the session. House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he wasn’t aware of any administration objections to the budget.

State Finance Director Henry Mabry said the budget "may be acceptable" despite that it is $19 million higher than the governor recommended when the legislative session opened in February.

The budget approved by legislators gives most state agencies an increase, including:

· $21 million for the court system to cover pay raises for judges.

· $10.4 million for the prison system.

· $7.2 million to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

· $3 million for the Department of Public Safety to process accident reports and driver’s licenses.

· $11 million to cover increases in the Medicaid program.

· $10.2 million for health programs.

In addition to the General Fund appropriations, some state programs will receive funding from the national tobacco settlement.

In other finance matters, the proposed $4.3 billion education budget has been sent to a conference committee.