Gov. Robert Bentley calls for vote on teacher pay raise

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Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2014.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2014. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Gov. Robert Bentley Thursday called for an up-or-down vote on a two percent pay raise for teachers, saying there was enough money available to do that and fully fund teachers’ insurance.

The remarks, a variation of comments Bentley made Wednesday after a House committee approved a $5.93 billion 2015 education budget without pay raises, sets up a confrontation between the governor and GOP lawmakers, who have consistently said there is not enough money to do everything the governor wants.

“If it’s a two percent pay raise bill, I want to bring it back and vote on it,” Bentley said Thursday. “I want the members to have a chance to vote with me, and vote for the teachers, or vote against it, and vote against the teachers.”

Without the support of legislative leadership, though, it’s hard to see how that vote could take place. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said last week he saw “no way” to provide teachers with a pay raise and adequate funding for insurance. Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, has said a pay raise may not be sustainable and has expressed pessimism about future revenues in the ETF — a stark contrast to Bentley, who described a state experiencing economic recovery in his State of the State address on Jan. 14.

House Ways and Means Education chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, had sponsored legislation to provide a two percent pay raise; budget chairs frequently carry legislation to allow budget items to take effect, whatever their opinions may be. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, carried a bill that initially called for a two percent pay raise for teachers. Ward’s bill was substituted in the Senate with a one percent bonus; the House education committee did not take action on that bill yesterday. Poole’s bill remains in committee.

“We want to put money into classrooms, and we want to have a sustainable budget that we can carry forward into future years as well,” Poole said yesterday.

The budget approved by the House committee includes $48 million for the Public Education Employees Health Insurance Program (PEEHIP), which may help address shortfalls in the teachers’ insurance program but is less than Bentley’s proposal, which would have fully funded the program. Even with full funding, PEEHIP officials have said increases to teachers’ premiums or co-pays are possible.

Bentley said Thursday that teachers and support personnel had been asked to bear more expenses in the last few years. The Legislature, with the support of the governor, voted in 2011 to raise teachers’ contributions to retirement plans from 5 percent to 7.5 percent. Bentley said Thursday that the state was emerging from the dire economic times that required such moves.

“Now that things are better, I believe we need to reward them,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than teachers and support personnel. We can fully fund PEEHIP and not take more money out of their salaries.”

– by Brian Lyman

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