Lawmakers cautious of ‘uncertain environment’ for 2022 budgets

Lawmakers cautious of ‘uncertain environment’ for 2022 budgets

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Passing the state’s two budgets is the Legislature’s only constitutionally required action each year. But in a COVID-19-altered session that will be anything but regular, even the most basic of tasks could prove to be a challenge.

“Realistically, hopefully we can keep the budgets on the fast track, but when you look at the budgets and the work that needs to be done, it’s probably middle to end of March, preferably the first of April, before we could get budgets out,” Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said. 

Both Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, the education budget committee chairman in the House, and Sen. Greg Albritton, the Senate’s General Fund committee chairman, have said lawmakers will be cautious in their 2022 spending plans.

Albritton, R-Range, said the General Fund’s December revenue growth was essentially flat compared to December 2019.

“I’m not suggesting level funding at this point, but I’m just concerned with the growth we’ve grown accustomed to and what we’re seeing now,” Albritton said.

The current General Fund budget is $2.39 billion; the education budget is $7.2 billion.

Lawmakers will know more when January revenue reports and 2022 projections are release Tuesday morning from the state’s budget experts.

Gov. Kay Ivey will also give lawmakers her 2022 budget proposals. She told ADN last week she will be requesting a 2% cost of living raise for the state’s educators and employees.

The education budget will start its legislative process in Sen. Arthur Orr’s education budget committee. Orr on Friday said that beyond a 2% raise, lawmakers are interested in increased, “targeted” compensation.

At this time last year, lawmakers were planning pay raises in the current budget. Those evaporated when the virus hit and lawmakers became more cautious in their spending.

“A year was lost,” Orr said. “If we can find the money for some additional, targeted compensation, I’m committed to doing that.”

Orr said he and Poole have discussed targeting teachers’ salary schedules in the middle years of their careers.

“We’re trying to retain educators and move them along in their pay,” he said.

Increases for educators in the STEM courses – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is also a priority in order to try to compete with private industry, Orr said.

“We have a lot of places around the state where children are not being taught by teachers with the appropriate credentials when it comes to math, science, computer science and other related fields,” he said.

Improving and increasing teachers’ professional development days is a third target in discussion, Orr said. 

“That would ultimately reap benefits over time for our students,” he said.

Last week, education budget committee members heard requests for increased funding educational institutions pre-K through post secondary.

Poole said budgeting “cautiously and conservatively” for the current year and a solid economy in light of the pandemic means there will be some “capacity” in the 2022 budget.

“But that capacity is going to be limited and we also still find ourselves in a very uncertain environment,” Poole said. 

He said lawmakers want to “invest in priorities in a responsible fashion.”

“There are a lot of caution lights still blinking out there and we don’t want to invest in things we can’t sustain,” Poole said. “We want to be mindful and respectful of taxpayers dollars, as we make those determinations.”

The General Fund budget starts in the House this year, in Rep. Steve Clouse’s committee. 

He said it’s too early to commit, but lawmakers are studying options for raises for state employees in 2022.

“I think that’s certainly what we’d like to try to do this year, either the 2% or our possible one-time bonus,” Clouse, R-Ozark, said.

Clouse said his intention is to move the General Fund as early as possible, in case COVID-19 disrupts another session.

“We’re going to move as quick as we can, if we can,” he said.