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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bedford bashes Riley as Senate overrides governor's changes to budget



Lawmakers in the House and Senate voted on Thursday to shoot down changes that Gov. Bob Riley made to the $2.5 billion General Fund budget.

State Sen. Roger Bedford, chairman of the Senate General Fund budget committee, bashed Riley for misplaced priorities in changing the budget passed by the Legislature.

The Senate then followed Bedford's lead and overrode Riley's changes to the budget with a 19-11 vote. The General Fund is the source of money for prisons, Medicaid, children's health insurance and other non-education functions.

The House had already voted 59-38 to override Riley.

Bedford, D-Russellville, said Riley cut funding for children's healthcare, for district attorneys, for Medicaid, for conservation, and for mental health.

Riley and other Republicans have bashed the General Fund budget for taking millions from the cash-strapped Alabama Department of Corrections, for increasing the level of funding to the State Children's Health Insurance Program and for giving money to pet projects in their districts including UFO days, mule days and watermelon festivals.

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Bedford did not want to talk about all of the pet projects that lawmakers funded.

He said the budget cut essential state services including corrections. Those lawmakers funded the pet projects and expanded insurance before funding those services, Marsh said.

Those lawmakers are expanding government, he said.

Marsh, a Riley ally, said keeping criminals locked up is an essential service of state government that helps keep citizens safe.

"Sure we hate to put money into prisoners but we have to do it," he said.

Riley and Marsh echoed the comments of Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen, who said the state would have to release more prisoners with the level of funding passed by the Legislature.

If Riley wants more money for prisons, Bedford said he could have used the money from his $12.1 million emergency fund, which the senator called a "slush fund." Riley currently has a $4.8 million emergency fund.

Bedford said Riley did not attempt to use those funds to help corrections and other areas.

Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, said the federal courts would take over the prisons at some point in time if the state cannot stop overcrowding. A lawsuit is pending against the state in federal court. The state's prison system is housing about twice as many inmates as the structures were built to handle.

Riley wanted to place an additional $4.2 million in corrections.

The Legislature did expand the number of people who are eligible for the children's health insurance program.

Marsh said the governor's proposed changes would have made those with a family income of up to $44,000 eligible for the program. The Legislature put the level at $66,000.

Marsh said taxpayers should not have to pay for health care for people who can afford it.

Bedford said there is a fundamental difference in Republicans and Democrats. He said Democrats believe $44,000 is not high enough to help working families.

"I say working families ought to have health insurance, too," Bedford said.

Funding for the children’s health insurance program, even with Riley's amendment, would have increased $10 million over last year, according to the governor's office.

Riley had also made half of the money for the local projects and events contingent on the revenue the state collects during the 2010 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

"I'm disappointed the budget they passed makes funding for what many would call 'pork projects' a higher priority than funding for essential government responsibilities like keeping prisoners locked up," the governor said in a statement.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Location: Montgomery, AL, United States

South Union Street is the blog of Montgomery Advertiser political reporters Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen. Always check here for the latest on the Legislature, elections and other activities and players in Alabama.

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