House Democrats talk teacher raises, officers in schools, lottery, cigarette tax

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Democrats in the Alabama House of Representatives want to place resource officers in every school to help protect children, allow voters to decide if they want a cigarette tax to repay debt and fund Medicaid, and give education employees a 10 percent pay raise.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, and other members of the House Democratic Caucus announce their 2013 agenda on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Photo courtesy of the House Democratic Caucus)

House Democrats also announced on Wednesday that they support a state lottery to raise $250 million a year for education, to close corporate tax loopholes that would raise a minimum of $58 million a year, and legislation that would alter how universities handle students in the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Program.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, issued a statement accusing House Democrats of a legislative agenda that is a “checklist of tax and spend measures.”

“Rather than proposing real reforms, the House Democrats simply want to roll the dice on legalized gambling, throw more money into bloated entitlement programs and demand higher taxes from businesses at a time when we should be encouraging job creation, not discouraging it,” Hubbard said.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said they waited to roll out their proposals until Gov. Robert Bentley outlined his priorities. Bentley delivered his state of the state speech on Tuesday.

Ford and other House Democrats criticized Bentley and other Republicans for talking about saving $1 billion while boasting of there being 4,000 fewer state employees.

Ford and Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, said while Bentley has asked for the first piece of legislation to arrive on his desk to be one to repay the $437 million that voters agreed to borrow from the Alabama Trust Fund,  they said the legislation by Republican Rep. Jay Love does not mandate how it would be paid back. They said Republicans passed the measure a year ago without a payback provision.

Democrats criticized how long it would take to pay back the trust fund, if it is even paid back.

“The constitutional amendment ensures that this body does not change its mind in 15 years when everybody has forgotten the promise” to repay it, Joe Hubbard said.

Joe Hubbard said the $437 million, in his proposal, would be paid back in six years with interest.

Joe Hubbard said borrowing the money was necessary because of Bentley’s inability to balance the budget, but said the tobacco tax would help fill the hole in the General Fund budget. He said the state spends tens of millions on tobacco-related illness.

And, Joe Hubbard said, Republicans wanted people to vote to “bail us out” to balance the budget so people should be allowed to decide whether they want the tobacco tax.

Ford said it is not fiscally responsible to increase the pay of education employees by 10 percent in one year so they propose 5 percent in the coming budget year and 2.5 percent each of the next two years.

When asked whether there was enough money to fund a 5 percent raise, Ford questioned the numbers used by the Bentley administration, which has proposed a 2.5 percent pay increase for education employees.

Bentley and other Republicans have said they want a higher raise for education employees, but said they want the raise to be sustainable.

Ford said the 2.5 percent would be a pay reinstatement since education employees have had their pay cut and have had to pay 2.5 percent more into their retirement. So, he said, educators would still be 2.5 percent behind where they were.

But, while disagreeing with the amount, Ford said “of course we’ll vote for any pay raise for educators.”

Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans, D-Birmingham, said funding resource officers would cost about $50 million with half of that coming from local school boards. She said some of the state’s 1,475 schools already have resource officers.

Coleman-Evans, who said her husband was a resource officer, said there should be trained police officers in schools to protect children and help parents to feel that their children are safe.

Democrats have made some of the same proposals and have made similar proposals in previous years with little to no success.

Ford said Speaker Hubbard spoke to the caucus and said Democratic bills would receive a fair hearing in committee.

Ford said some Republicans, who “have constantly gone home the last two summers and caught havoc from the middle class, educators, and state employees in their district,” have come to them more willing to work with Democrats. But he said Republicans are expected to vote together on procedural votes.

“We challenge them to vote what is best for their constituency,” Ford said.

More details on the agenda of the House Democratic Caucus:

If the Legislature and voters approved the constitutional amendment, the revenue from the $1 cigarette tax would generate $227 million annually in new revenue, according to Democratic lawmakers. The amendment would require the funds to go to repay the $437 million borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund in the September referendum until the money is repaid. After the trust fund is paid back, the money would go to fund Medicaid.

Democrats proposed legislation that would give small businesses a tax credit that would be funded by repealing the tax loopholes used by multinational corporations to avoid paying taxes in Alabama. House Democrats said closing those loopholes would help level the playing field for small businesses.

The revenue from the lottery would fund an increase in money for teachers for classroom supplies from $300 to $1,000; provide $25 million a year for the school resource officers; and provide scholarships to A/B honor roll students for tuition and fees at universities, colleges and technical schools in the state.

The Democratic proposal would take 84 percent of the funds in the PACT program and disburse those funds to Alabama colleges and universities based on the percentage of PACT students they admit on average with the money going to the school’s endowment in exchange for waiving the tuition and fees for PACT students. PACT students would not notify the university that they are a participant in the program until they have been accepted.

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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