By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law the state’s two budgets Monday after a unique and at some points tense final weeks of the 2020 regular legislative session.
“I appreciate the hard work of the Legislature during an unprecedented regular session,” Ivey said in an emailed statement.
“While we have yet to know the full impact of COVID-19 on our state, these budgets will ensure continuity of government, while being fiscally responsible. There is more work to be done, and I look forward to working with the Legislature in the days ahead.”
A record-breaking $7.2 billion Education Trust Fund budget was approved, as well as a $2.3 billion General Fund budget, both for fiscal year 2021, which begins in October.
Both budgets have increases from the current fiscal year, but are considerably less than what was proposed before the coronavirus pandemic hit Alabama and impacted state revenues. Budget writers said they do not expect proration, or automatic spending cuts, on this fiscal year’s budget.
The education budget has an increase of $91 million over this year, which is about $300 million less from what was proposed at the beginning of the session.
“We’re pleased with where we are, we’re making progress and supporting valuable programs, but we certainly haven’t reached our goal yet,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News. He’s chairman of the Senate education budget committee.
The 2021 budget funds the Alabama Literacy Act, which Orr said is key to improving reading comprehension and overall education in the state.
It all doubles the amount spent on English language learners, which is particularly key to several north Alabama school systems with a significant percentage of students from Central America. Improving those students’ English skills is critical to their success and also the systems that are graded on educational achievement.
Ivey also signed Monday a bill authorizing a $1.25 billion bond issue for K-12 and higher education capital improvement projects.
“It will pay dividends for schools to upgrade their facilities,” Orr said.
The General Fund saw an overall increase of $167.3 million from the current year’s budget.
The biggest expenses in the General Fund budget are for Medicaid at $820 million; the Alabama Department of Corrections at $544 million; the Alabama Department of Public Health at $106 million with a significant portion of that paying for health insurance for low-income children; and the Alabama Department of Mental Health at $154 million.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, called the 2021 General Fund an “adequate” budget, but not what lawmakers thought in February they’d have for getting some state agencies above pre-recession spending levels.
“It gives us three to six months to see where things are going with the pandemic, the economy,” Clouse told Alabama Daily News.
Lawmakers cut nearly $20 million in proposed 2021 funding increases for early childhood development and the state’s pre-K program, one of Ivey’s priority projects. The program still got a $5 million increase to expand access to the award-winning program.
One of the items struck from the originally proposed budget was a 3% raise for educators. State employees aren’t getting 2021 raises either.
Lawmakers also allocated schools about $260 million for immediate use from the Advancement and Technology Fund. State law normally says schools and colleges can use that money for specific one-time uses, like maintenance, technology and security upgrades. This year, Orr said, restrictions were lifted to give schools more flexibility in the spending.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said he was proud that the Legislature was able to pass two “healthy” budgets within the time and physical constraints they were under because of COVID-19 concerns.
“I think we did a very good job in very difficult circumstances, and we ended up with two very good budgets,” McCutcheon said on Monday.