Alabama education budget could go to Gov. Robert Bentley today

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Senate Finance and Taxation Education chair Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, and House Ways and Means chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, discuss the Education Trust Fund budget at a press conference on Oct. 1, 2013.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman)

Senate Finance and Taxation Education chair Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, and House Ways and Means chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, discuss the Education Trust Fund budget at a press conference on Oct. 1, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman)

An education budget with more money for insurance but no funding for teacher pay raises or bonuses could go to Gov. Robert Bentley today.

A conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the Education Trust Fund budget met Thursday morning, and was expected to vote on a version to be considered by both chambers later today.

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee, and Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Committee, said the budget would include an increase in funding for the Public Education Employees Health Insurance Program; no pay raises or bonuses for teachers and support personnel, and slightly reduced increases to several programs funded through the Education Trust Fund.

The budget as described by the chairs would allow the Alabama State Department of Education to hire 200 new teachers, including 150 middle school teachers, according to State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice. The House budget included funding for 400 new teachers.

“We’re disappointed we won’t get all the middle school teachers we wanted, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s OK,” he said.

The budget does not include funding for a pay raise for teachers or a bonus. Pittman praised educators in the state and said they deserved extra compensation, but also said that raises needed to be sustainable.

“We don’t take any of those efforts for granted, and we certainly know you deserve more compensation,” Pittman said. “We have to the best of our ability working on our revenue estimates and align appropriations with estimates.”

Bentley had called for an up-or-down vote on employee pay raises earlier this month, but indicated Tuesday that his “priority” was increasing funding for teacher insurance.

Pittman has repeatedly expressed pessimism about revenues into the Education Trust Fund for the coming year, saying that he does not believe the economy will provide the money expected. The senator, like many other Republican lawmakers, has also prioritized repayments to the ETF’s Rainy Day Fund, which is owed $163 million; the conference committee number for repayment comes in at about $45 million, midway between the House and Senate versions.

The state’s share of insurance for teachers would increase from $714 per employee per month to $753 per employee per month. Both PEEHIP and Bentley had sought about $795. Pittman said he had spoken with PEEHIP employees, who told them they could work with the number.

A call to PEEHIP was not immediately returned Thursday morning. The board has said that increased premiums and co-pays for teachers are possible, even with full funding; the board will not know until a meeting scheduled for May.

The source of the $220 million PEEHIP deficit provoked a debate between conference committee members Thursday. Republicans blamed provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including one allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, for the higher costs.

“The fact of the matter is the unintended consequence of Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act led to shortfall in PEEHIP,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, suggested that the costs were due in part to Bentley’s decision not to opt into the expansion of Medicaid eligibility provided under the ACA, saying the state was taking on “all of the costs without any of the benefits.”

“Not expanding Medicaid has the unintended consequence of health care costs increasing without the coverage,” he said.

– posted by Kala Kachmar and Brian Lyman

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