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The Associated Press April 14, 2010, 7:49AM ET

Ala. Legislature maintains health care in budget

A legislative session that began with warnings about cutbacks in health care programs is going to end with a new budget that maintains Medicaid services and the Children's Health Insurance Program at their present levels.

A new General Fund budget to finance state agencies in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 won approval in the Senate 25-8 and the House 64-36. The votes Tuesday sent the budget to Gov. Bob Riley, who plans to take a few days to review it before deciding whether to sign it into law, spokesman Jeff Emerson said Tuesday night.

The nearly $1.6 billion General Fund budget compares with about $1.5 billion that state agencies expect to spend in the current budget.

The legislative session began in January with the recession causing state revenue to plunge, and lawmakers talking about the possibility of cutting health care services. Senate budget committee Chairman Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and House Chairman John Knight, D-Montgomery, said legislators made it a priority to maintain health care for the elderly and children.

To do that, they are counting on $197 million in federal stimulus funds for health care that Congress is still considering. "We are fairly comfortable that is going to pass," Knight told the House.

The budget is also propped up with a one-year tax on nursing homes.

Bedford said some offices not involved with social services are being cut and may have scattered layoffs after the new budget takes effect in the fall.

The Senate gave final approval to a bill Tuesday that would allow state agencies facing budget cuts to have voluntary furlough plans. If employees of the agency agree, they could take furloughs rather than seeing their co-workers laid off. The bill now heads to the governor for his signature.

Opposition to the budget came primarily from Republicans, who complained that it included $7 million for legislators' special projects -- mostly programs designed to help win them votes in this year's election.

"I don't know how we are going to be able to sell the public on the dire straits we face when we don't show restraint," Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

The state's other major budget, the education budget, got passed last week. That means the Legislature has completed both budgets with three meeting days left in the legislative session and has avoided the traditional rush to pass both budgets on the last day of the session.

Knight said that happened because legislators had no extra money to consider. Instead, he said they were focused on maintaining health programs and cutting where the public would feel it the least.

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