Coronavirus-adjusted General Fund budget in committee Tuesday

Coronavirus-adjusted General Fund budget in committee Tuesday
(Source: WBRC Fox6 News)

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee is expected to debate and vote on the 2021 General Fund budget on Tuesday.

Legislative leaders late last week said their session, on pause since mid-March because of the coronavirus, would resume May 4.

But Senate budget committee chairman Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said that lawmakers need to set an example for the rest of the state.

“Part of our problem we’re dealing with is uncertainty,” Albritton said. “A lot of people don’t know where we’re going. One thing we can do is start to lay down a solid budget.”

Albritton will have a substitute budget, not yet made public, that’s expected to be significantly different from the $2.5 billion proposal Gov. Kay Ivey introduced in early February, before concerns over the coronavirus shuttered some businesses, at least temporarily put hundreds of thousands of Alabamians out of work and slowed state tax revenues.

“We believe the governor’s budget she brought in February is based on a completely different set of facts and circumstances,” Albritton said.

Albritton and others in the Senate have said the new version of the 2021 General Fund budget will look similar to the 2020 $2.2 billion budget, with a few exceptions for specific agencies. A raise for state employees next year is no longer expected.

Albritton said it’s his hope that the committee approves the budget on Tuesday. From there, it would go to the Senate floor and then the House.

With leaders wanting to limit the amount of time spent in Montgomery for the remainder of the session, having the General Fund budget through committee could give lawmakers a head start in sending a finalized proposal to the governor's desk. That process takes five days, but the General Fund would only have three days remaining should the committee advance it Tuesday.

Leadership last week said the public would not be allowed in the State House in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Albritton said Alabama Public Television will broadcast the 2:30 p.m. meeting and audio will be available on the Legislature’s website.

The committee of 14 includes three Democrats. Albritton said he expects “robust” participation from members. Some Democrats have expressed health concerns about returning to the State House May 4.

Sen. Bill Beasley, D-Clayton, said he would be attending the committee meeting and believes that proper social distancing and safety measures will be taken in the State House.

“I’m certainly worried about the health and welfare of the different members of the Senate as well as the staff who work with the Senate,” Beasley, a pharmacist, told ADN. “I think it’s going to be a learning process on how things go. I think everybody has got to respect the other members of the Senate.”

Beasley said the Legislature needs to be prepared to pass the budgets starting on May 4 and believes that social distancing and safety measures will be in place to safely conduct business when they reconvene.

Committee member Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, is a medical doctor and will be at the meeting. He said it’s time for the state to get back to pre-coronavirus activities.

“People who are at risk probably need to quarantine themselves. Everyone else needs to get back to as normal as we can,” Stutts said.

Stutts said with a vaccine for COVID-19 likely a year away, herd immunity — when a majority of a population has been vaccinated or infected and is immune — would make it less of a threat.

“We won’t have herd immunity until we have social interaction,” he said.

While COVID-19 is not deadly to most people who get it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not yet known if those who have had the are now immune or could get it again.

Stutts said that Alabama’s efforts to slow the spread and not overwhelm hosptials have been successful.

“We don’t need to move the goalpost now,” he said about Alabama’s flattened curve. Stutts practices at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield. He said as of Monday, there was one COVID-19-positive patient there in isolation.

“We don’t need to set a new goal now,” Stutts said.

The committee room will be set up to keep lawmakers six feet apart, Albritton said.

By law, the legislature’s regular session can only last 105 calendar days and the current one must end by May 18.

“I think it’s important that the state lead the way in establishing what needs to be done,” Albritton said. He praised Ivey’s actions to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve bent the curve … it’s been overwhelming successful,” he said. “Now we need to start doing things a little bit differently.”

Leadership last week said the General Fund and education budgets were the two priorities.

No other committee meetings have been scheduled for this week, according to the information on the website as of Monday morning.

Copyright 2020 WBRC. All rights reserved.