Gov. Robert Bentley still seeking teacher pay raise; budget chairman skeptical

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Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2014.  Bentley said Monday he was still pushing for a two percent teacher pay raise. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2014. Bentley said Monday he was still pushing for a two percent teacher pay raise. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Having apparently gotten full funding of teacher insurance, Gov. Robert Bentley now wants a two percent teacher pay raise, his other major priority for the Education Trust Fund budget, to pass the Legislature.

Whether that will happen is an open question. One of the Legislature’s budget chairmen Monday expressed skepticism about the possibility of a pay raise.

Bentley, speaking to reporters Monday after a speech to the Governor’s Preparedness Conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery, said his office was “still pushing” for the pay raise, a little over a week after the Governor and lawmakers reached an agreement on funding for the Public Education Employees Health Insurance Plan (PEEHIP).

“We still feel money is available to do (the pay raise),” he said. “We have asked a lot of our teachers and state employees over the last three years. We have asked them for a reduction in pay in order to get through difficult problems related to our budget over the last three years.”

The Governor praised lawmakers for agreeing to increase the state’s share of individual plans for PEEHIP to $780 per individual per month, up from the Legislature’s proposed $754 before spring break. The amount — roughly $61 million out of the ETF — should allow PEEHIP to close a total deficit of $220 million without having to increase out-of-pocket costs for members, Bentley said.

Lawmakers are expected to bring up the compromise budget in a conference committee Tuesday. Senate Finance and Taxation Education chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, Monday sounded dubious about the possibility of a pay raise.

“We had an agreement a week ago last Friday that included that we were going to fully fund PEEHIP,” he said. “We’d all like to see more money available for pay raise, but it has to be sustained.”

The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates the cost of a 1 percent teacher pay raise at about $38 million. Getting the PEEHIP number required cuts to some programs, including a reduction in debt repayment.

Sustainability has been a point of departure for Bentley and the Legislature during the 2014 legislative session. Bentley’s original budget, submitted to lawmakers in January, included a two percent pay raise and full funding of teacher insurance. Republican lawmakers, stressing the need to make the Education Trust Fund’s Rainy Day Account whole by a July, 2015, deadline, first reduced the pay raise to a bonus, then eliminated it entirely. As it passed the Senate, the Education Trust Fund budget did not initially increase insurance funding; the House version included the $754 figure.

It’s unclear what vehicles remain to allow a teacher pay raise to go forward. Changes in teacher compensation must be approved in legislation separate from the budget, and bills designed to do that are effectively dead for the session.

Bentley suggested the possibility of amending bills with bonuses for state employees and retirees to include a teacher pay raise, though he acknowledged it was unclear that was legally possible under the state’s Constitution.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said. “We’ll make a decision on that. We feel that this is a mechanism where we could add a two percent pay raise.”

Pittman was also uncertain of the proposal’s feasibility.

“I don’t know that you can appropriate money from two different trust funds in the same bill,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll find that out.”

Asked if he would cut any programs to fund the pay raise, Bentley said his office “would look at the entire budget,” and suggested he would consider sending an ETF back that looked like his January proposal.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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