‘Positive’ $7.1 billion education clears House, varies from Senate version

‘Positive’ $7.1 billion education clears House, varies from Senate version

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a $7.1 billion education budget, but its final passage still depends on agreement with the Senate on several points, including health insurance for low-income children.

House education budget chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, told his colleagues the proposed budget, nearly $500,000,000 increase over the current budget, would not fix all of the state’s education problems, but is part of the equation.

“This is a positive budget for the state,” Poole said. “It passed by unanimous vote, which I hope demonstrates that this budget addresses needs in every area of the state and on every level of education.”

It was approved 99-to-0, with four abstentions.

In its current form, the $7.1 billion education budget includes:

  • a four percent raise for K-12 and community college educators;
  • a $25.3 million increase for the state’s voluntary pre-K program; 
  • more than $200 million in new funding for K-12 education’s Foundation Program, which funds the basics of schools’ operations;
  • about $79 million in new money for universities.

It also includes $28.8 million in additional money for community colleges, but not as much as the Senate-passed version of the budget had.

“The House-proposed budget would cut over $11 million in operations and maintenance funding to Alabama’s community colleges from both Governor-recommended and Senate-passed education budgets,” Alabama Community College System spokeswoman Rachel Adams said in a statement to Alabama Daily News.

Much of that will be spent on the employee pay raise, Adams said, “and not allow for much needed campus maintenance improvements nor would it cover inflationary costs of utilities, equipment purchases, and other operations costs necessary to maintain a college.”

Asked on the House floor if more money for community colleges was possible, Poole pointed out that their 7.5 percent increase from fiscal year 2019 was more than four-year universities were receiving.

“This is a good budget for everybody, including community colleges,” Poole said. 

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, pointed to the pay raise, more teachers in grades four through six and increased funding for the state’s First Class Pre-K program as positives in the record budget.

“I was pleased with the budget,” Wood said. “It was good we got teachers a four percent [pay raise], but maybe just as important that we kept PEEHIP from going up.” PEEHIP stands for the Public Education Employee Health Insurance Program.

“More funding for Pre-K, and also more elementary school teachers, which means smaller class sizes,” Wood said.

Several Democrats and Republicans pointed out on the House floor that the budget does not include a cost-of-living increase for retired education employees.

“I’m always concerned about my friends in the retiree community,” House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said on the House floor. He suggested a separate budget fund for retiree raises in the future and asked that work begin on that early for the 2021 budget.

Poole said a one percent raise for retirees would cost $220 million, which could not fit in the budget this year.

“I would hope that we could come up with a formula to give them a bonus every two years, something they could look forward to,” Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said.

Rep. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, agreed that lawmakers want raises for former educators.

“The teacher pay raise took about $150 million,” Crawford said. “I would love to see a retiree raise, but the money is not there.”

Crawford said he was happy about the budget’s about $1.6 million increase for Athens State University.

Some lawmakers also used the debate to question the state’s cost and oversight for charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate outside the structure of traditional K-12 schools. The legislature allowed their creation in 2015.

“I would like to know more about this $300,000 …” Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, said about the allocation for the Alabama Public Charter School Commission. “I’m beginning to get the impression that I’m not the only one in this chamber that has concerns about this particular commission.” 

House members approved the budget Tuesday night, but that is not yet final passage. Because of differences between the House and Senate versions, the budget is expected to go to a conference committee of select lawmakers from both chambers where differences will be worked out. A conference committee is also needed for the $2.1 billion General Fund. One of the sticking points is a disagreement between some State House leaders about which budget should pay $35 million for the state’s share of the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program for low- and mid-income children. 

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said CHIP expense should be split between the education budget and the General Fund.

“I think that’s the only way we can get it done,” Greer said.

Crawford agreed. 

“You can say a healthy child gets a good education, I don’t see why (the education budget) can’t pay half of it and the General Fund pay half,” Crawford said. “I don’t see why they can’t split it. I wouldn’t want it paid all out of one budget.”

Separately, a bill to offer more generous benefits to new teachers cleared a Senate committee Tuesday. The proposed Tier III benefits are between the Tier I benefits offered prior to 2013 and the lesser Tier II benefits that have been in effect for new teachers since then.

A fiscal note on the bill says it would increase the total employer contributions by an estimated $16.7 million for fiscal year 2020, with approximately $9.8 million being paid from the education budget.

The bill passed the Senate education budget committee on a 10-to-5 vote. It needs approval by the full chamber before the session ends later this week.