MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A conference committee will try Wednesday to break a legislative deadlock on how to use settlement money Alabama will receive from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The committee is tasked with trying to broker an agreeable compromise between lawmakers dug in over sending money to road projects at the oil-battered coast and lawmakers equally adamant that the funds should be used for the state's Medicaid program, which could face large shortfalls in the near future.
"If they really want anything to work at all, they've got to come to the middle. I hope that is what will happen in conference," Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
The bill is headed to a conference committee after senators on Tuesday stripped $191 million in road project money approved by the House.
After more than five hours of contentious and occasionally emotional debate, state senators voted 21-9 for a plan to steer $300 million to the state's Medicaid program over the next three years and $320 million to repay money borrowed during past budget shortfalls.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, argued the state's biggest need is in Medicaid. Orr said the state could face shortfalls of up to $200 million in Medicaid in the coming two fiscal years and the settlement funds could help close those gaps.
"We are fast approaching a fiscal cliff in Medicaid," Orr said.
Alabama's general fund is getting $1 billion over 18 years to compensate the state for economic damages sustained from the spill that spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The state has $850 million in payments remaining, and lawmakers are considering taking a smaller amount up front — a projected $640 million— by doing a bond issue.
Lawmakers from south Alabama have been adamant on getting money for road projects in south Alabama.
"The course of the bill is sadly off course because it doesn't address any of the damage that was done to the coast," Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, said.
Orr and other lawmakers argued south Alabama received its own direct settlement funds from the oil spill. Hightower argued those funds were inadequate to compensate the region from the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
A House-passed plan would have used $450 million for repaying state debts and $191 million for two state road projects in coastal counties. Paying debt early would free up about $70 million and help fill a projected $85 million hole in next year's Medicaid budget.
Legislators have so far found little common ground in a special session called by Gov. Robert Bentley on a proposed state lottery and other ways to try to get additional money to the state's perpetually cash-strapped Medicaid program. With the lottery bill dead for the special session, the oil spill settlement bill took center stage in the final days of the special session.
Rep. Steve Clouse, the House sponsor of the bill, said last week that he did not think the House would accept many changes to the bill.
The conference committee meets at 9 a.m. The meeting could be the last chance to reach an agreement since there are only two possible meeting days left in the special session.
"I think it's a possibility," House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said of the chance of reaching a compromise.