Budget without AG funds raises interesting questions [Opinion]

Published 12:27 am Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In Montgomery, politicians appear ready to finalize a General Fund budget for fiscal year 2014-15 with no direct funding for the attorney general’s office.

That’s a strange budget from a legislature that loves to pass tough-on-crime laws as they pander to the public for votes.

The governor’s office and legislators in charge of the budget say the attorney general doesn’t need the state’s tax monies. Instead, they say, with control of outside funds and litigation settlement money, Attorney General Luther Strange can make his budget out of those pots of money, and ease the pressure on a very tight General Fund.

“If they’ve got the funding sitting there, they ought to use it for their agency, instead of the General Fund having to give them money,” Bentley said Monday.

Strange, in a letter to senators on last month, suggested budget framers were overstating how much money his office had available. Without a General Fund appropriation, he said, the lack of funding “would substantially jeopardize our state’s ability to prosecute criminals, provide justice for victims and defend challenges to the laws passed by the Legislature.”

And goodness knows, he’ll need plenty of money to defend those challenges.

By comparison, the AG’s office is budgeted to receive about $7 million from the General Fund budget in the current fiscal year. His total budget for 2015 is $23.7 million, and sources close to the budget issue are disputing whether there are enough outside sources to fund the AG’s operations.

The dispute centers on whether there is enough outside funding for the office to meet a $23.7 million budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins Oct. 1. Like many state agencies, the Attorney General’s Office uses sources outside the General Fund to fund its operations, including fees from litigation. One of the largest sources is money from the state’s share of the National Mortgage Settlement Fund.

At present, the AG’s office has between $13 million and $15 million left in funding from a 2012 settlement from the nation’s largest mortgage firms over claims of illegal foreclosures.

But there also is a rift in the state’s Republican Party, and officials in Strange’s office have a long-running investigation into current members of the legislature. On Tuesday, one of those members who was targeted in the investigation, Rep. Greg Wren, a Montgomery Republican who has served for 16 years, resigned just before he accepted a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to a charge of using his office for personal gain, a misdemeanor, and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Documents filed in the case said that Wren, an insurance agent by trade who served as chairman of the Joint Legislative Medicaid Committee, inserted language that would have given Bessemer-based American Pharmacy Cooperative, Inc. (APCI) an edge in certain Medicaid contracts.

One has to wonder if some members of the legislature would cut the AG’s funding in an attempt to stop or hinder that investigation.

And what the AG would spend those “extra” dollars on if his budget were funded.