By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama lawmakers continued their budget-focused, abbreviated session Thursday, sending the General Fund budget to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk and getting one step closer to final passage of the education budget.
The House approved the $7.2 billion Education Trust Fund, which is a $91 million increase from the 2020 fiscal year budget, but about $300 million less than the pre-pandemic proposed budget. The education budget and other education funding bills now go to the Senate, where they will be in committee Friday and could get final passage Saturday.
House education committee budget chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said conservative appropriations in the past and a reserve fund kept major cuts out of the 2021 budget, despite declines in revenue following the coronavirus pandemic.
“While we’re having a period … some reduced receipts, they’re not eating into our appropriations at this time,” Poole told reporters. “And we’re not projecting that forward at this time.”
All state agencies and education departments took a cut from what was proposed in Ivey’s proposed budgets before the coronavirus outbreak hit state tax revenues, but budget writers said that proration would not be necessary for the current year’s budget.
The final vote on the passage of the Education Trust Fund was 76-1, with the only no vote coming from Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals. He also voted against other education-funding bills Thursday.
Sorrell told Alabama Daily News that given the lingering concerns regarding the coronavirus and the economy, the state should not be spending additional money.
“I fear this recession may last longer than projections indicate, and I cannot in good conscience come to Montgomery and cast votes that grow government and that don’t seem to take into account the economic realities of the times,” Sorrell said. “The Legislature should tighten its belt alongside the voters and level fund the budgets. Adjustments could then be made in a special session when we have more information to make our decisions off of.”
Most House Democrats were absent Thursday and did not vote on the budgets because of previously-stated concerns over health risks and because of fiscal concerns of passing budgets during the economic uncertainty of the pandemic.
One of the largest concessions made for both budgets was the loss of pay raises for state employees and teachers.
The House also gave final passage to a $1.25 billion bond issue to fund capital improvement projects at K-12 schools and colleges and universities. That legislation now goes to Ivey for her signature.
In the House version of the education budget, the state’s First Class Pre-K program receives an increase of only $3.4 million, compared to the governor’s pre-pandemic proposed $25 million increase.
Poole said discussions are ongoing in the Legislature about how to keep growing the nationally recognized pre-K program.
“I don’t think anybody should doubt the Legislature’s commitment to pre-K and expanding pre-K, but how do we do that in this current environment that we’re facing right at this moment?” Poole said.
The Alabama Literacy Act will receive $18.5 million to fulfill necessary summer school and professional development requirements under the 2019 law that allows students to be held back in the third grade if they’re not reading on grade level.
Six million is being allocated to “school safety security and climate,” fund which includes about $4.9 million in helping support and fund school-based mental health service coordinators. Poole said on Thursday that this would not be enough to provide a fully-funded coordinator for every school district but was meant to help support current operations.
The teacher retirement system and health insurance program will also continue to be fully funded, Poole said.
A supplemental bill was also passed that allocates $245 million out of the state’s Advancement and Technology fund to all K-12 schools and higher education institutions. That money can be used immediately by schools for safety, technology, transportation and deferred maintenance costs.
There is a total of $520 million in the Advancement and Technology Fund, but lawmakers, citing a coronavirus-caused dip in tax revenue, are holding back half of it should it be needed elsewhere later. Lawmakers are also using $15 million for the first year’s payment on that $1.25 billion bond issue.
House passage of the $2.3 billion General Fund budget was not as smooth of a process as the Education Trust Fund, but it was eventually approved once an amendment to federal coronavirus relief funding allocations were made. The General Fund pays for non-education state agencies and services.
The final House vote was 74-1, with the only nay vote again coming from Sorrell.
The Senate later concurred with the House changes with a final vote of 30-0. The budget now goes to Ivey for her signature or veto.
An amendment was added to the final bill that allows the governor to spend $200 million of federal coronavirus relief funding immediately, but any other spending has to be approved by the Legislature. Lawmakers also increased supplemental appropriations for district attorneys’ offices, going from $4 million to now receiving $5 million.
House General Fund Chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said he believes it’s the Legislature’s constitutional right to have a say in where those federal dollars go.
“The Legislature represents all the parts of the state. We’re a microcosm of our constituents, so individual House and Senate members would be able to get opinions from different constituents from north, south, east, west Alabama,” Clouse said.
The General Fund saw an overall increase of $167.3 million from the 2020 fiscal year budget. The biggest expenses in the General Fund budget are for Medicaid at $820 million; the Alabama Department of Corrections, Corrections at $544 million; the Alabama Department of Public Health at $106 million; and the Alabama Department of Mental Health at $154 million.
A separate bill from Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, was also passed by the House that creates a General Fund “rolling reserve” to help avoid future shortfalls by not allowing over-spending in years of surplus. The Education Trust Fund has had a “rolling reserve” system in place since 2011, which many have credited for helping the state avoid proration and creating a healthy 2021 budget.