Senate approves $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund budget

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee. (Advertiser file)

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee. (Advertiser file)

The Alabama Senate Thursday voted 21 to 10 to approve a $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund budget that includes funding to hire 250 new middle school teachers, give teachers a one percent bonus and cut $10.8 million from Alabama State University’s budget.

The budget now goes to the House of Representatives. In the local delegation, Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, voted no and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, abstained. Both expressed varying degrees of concern with the funding situation for ASU, which Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee chair Trip Pittman, R-Daphne said was aimed at assisting new president Gwendolyn Boyd make changes at the school.

Among Republicans, Sens. Scott Beason of Gardendale, Bill Holtzclaw of Madison and Paul Sanford of Huntsville joined six Democrats and Sen. Harri Anne Smith, I-Slocomb voting against the budget. Democrats Billy Beasley of Clayton, Tammy Irons of Florence and Marc Keahey of Grove Hill voted for it.

Brewbaker said afterward that the vote on the budget, whose final contours will be set in a conference committee between the House and Senate, was “theater.” However, he said that the ASU funding shift would only have an impact “if the governor was on board.” Gov. Robert Bentley said Wednesday he was not involved in the discussions and did not support the move.

The proposal provides some increases in funding for transportation, textbooks and operating expenses for schools. However, the budget struck out a proposal from Gov. Robert Bentley to give teachers and support personnel a two percent raise, replacing it with a one-time bonus.

Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee chair Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, also included a $10.8 million cut to Alabama State University, by far the largest cut to colleges and universities in the budget. The budget would give ASU a $10 million first conditional appropriation, the release of which would be in Bentley’s hands. The Senate turned back a proposal from Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery to move about $3 million in liability funds to ASU.

Repeating arguments he made in committee on Wednesday, Pittman said on the floor of the Senate that he was concerned about future economic projections, and what they might mean for the Education Trust Fund. The ETF gets most of its funding from income and sales taxes, which are highly sensitive to positive and negative shifts in the economy.

“The projections for what may happen this year are uncertain,” Pittman said. “My job is to only budget what we’ll have to spend.”

Pittman said he was “confident” the budget would not fall into proration. Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, praised the additional funding for middle school teachers.

“Most of schools we’ve got in state that are failing are middle schools,” he said. “And that’s a critical time in a child’s life.”

Democrats criticized the budget for eliminating a proposed two percent pay raise for teachers and not providing funding to help them purchases supplies for their classrooms. Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, introduced an amendment that would have moved $3 million in liability funding to purchases for toilet paper and tissues.

“The state ought to pay for the basic sanitary needs of students in schools, and yet we choose not to,” he said.

The amendment was defeated, along with a subsequent amendment from Bedford to move about $20 million from repayment of the state’ Rainy Day Account to daily operations for public schools.

Bedford voted against the budget. “It cuts the pay to teachers, both active and retired,” he said. “It does not fund textbooks and it still requires parents to pay out of their pocket for tissues and toilet paper. That’s a bad budget.”

– posted by Brian Lyman

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