Gov. Robert Bentley cracks open the door to expand Medicaid and enhance state revenues for budget

al.com, December 11, 2014

Gov. Robert Bentley cracked the door open on the expansion of Medicaid, allowing new lawmakers to speculate the governor was mulling asking the federal government for a block grant to expand the federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

It was an interesting trial balloon floated by Bentley when most of his speech was focused on the hard choices the lawmakers will have to make on other issues -- mainly the budget.

Bentley said he won't be running again -- unless he runs for president, he said as a joke -- so he wants to fix Alabama's budget system.

He told lawmakers he campaigned for many of them in 2014.

"You were elected to lead," said Bentley. "I want to see how many leaders we have."

Bentley said he will be calling on legislators to do some tough things: "So I'm calling in the chips."

But some lawmakers didn't just want to talk about possible revenue enhancements for the anemic General Fund, which will have a shortfall of up to $700 million next year.

Some wanted Bentley to make a hard choice -- on Medicaid.

Speaking to a group of mainly freshman lawmakers on the last day of their orientation session at the Capitol auditorium, Bentley fended off at least two questions from lawmakers who grilled him over his refusal, throughout his successful 2014 re-election campaign, to consider expanding Medicaid.

But then Bentley surprised many in attendance when he said he would entertain the idea of a federal block grant for Medicaid expansion.

Later, he told media members at a brief conference after his speech that a block grant is on his mind, and he hasn't ruled it out. But Bentley did not say outright that he was going to expand Medicaid. He also said his administration isn't working on a proposal to the federal government.

"I wouldn't be opposed to a block grant for the entire Medicaid system," Bentley told the media.

Bentley said he would prefer a Medicaid expansion require new recipients have a job, or have a plan for work.

Bentley took heat after his speech when he took questions. One person grilling him was state Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, who showed up to ask why she hasn't heard from the governor in months.

She said thousands of Alabamians don't have access to health insurance.

Bentley then admitted he wasn't opposed to crafting an expansion of Medicaid through a block grant that Alabama could negotiate with the federal government.

Bentley has been a steady holdout to expanding Medicaid, even as conservative Republican governors in Indiana and Ohio expand it, using revenue from the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Bentley was asked about a premium-assistance program in Arkansas that expanded Medicaid, but Bentley said his administration is not working on a specific proposal to the federal government.

But regarding his speech to incoming lawmakers, Bentley focused more on the $1.8 billion General Fund.

The General Fund gives prisons, courts, and Medicaid most of its state money. The fund has been squeezed of late, mainly because most growth taxes do not fund the General Fund.

Instead, Bentley said, growth revenue streams -- such as income taxes, sales taxes, and utility taxes -- fund the Education Trust Fund.

Bentley said the General Fund needs some revenue streams from growth sources.

One lawmaker asked what plans, specifically, he had for revenue. Bentley said details would come.

Then Bentley pleaded with lawmakers to steel themselves for hard choices.

Don't say his budget proposal is "dead on arrival" when it is sent to the Legislature, Bentley said.

More News