North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

March 11, 2013

Steve Flowers: Alabama’s budget system has its own little quirks

By Steve Flowers
North Jefferson News

COMMENTARY — We in Alabama are only one of a handful of states that do not work off of one unified budget. We have two budgets. We have a general fund budget like all states. Then we have an Education Trust Fund budget that obviously funds education in the Heart of Dixie. This includes K-12 and higher education.

Allow me to go back in history and share with you the reason we have a separate education budget. During the Great Depression, education was woefully under funded. Both black and white children were going to dilapidated one-room schools and were sharing threadbare textbooks. Teachers were not even being paid. They were being given script or promissory notes for which they might eventually be paid. The education system in Alabama was abysmal to say the least.

Then a farsighted governor named Bibb Graves stepped up to the plate and orchestrated the creation of the Education Trust Fund budget. He and the legislature dedicated state sales tax to education funding. In addition, they earmarked a new tax for education. The new state income tax would go towards education in Alabama.

Little did they know how much these two taxes would grow over the next seven decades. Today these two growth taxes account for two thirds of the state’s revenue.

During my first term in the legislature in the early 1980s the general fund and education fund were about equal, 50-50. Over the last 30 years the growth taxes have grown incrementally so that in 2013 the Education Trust Fund budget accounts for 70 percent of state tax dollars and the general fund gets a paltry 30 percent.

Today’s legislature even has two budget committees. There are General Fund and Education Fund, Ways and Means, and Finance Committees.

What about education today? Representative Jay Love of Montgomery chairs the House Education Budget Committee and Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne heads the Senate Education Budget Committee. The General Fund budget is bleak and in dire straits. However, believe it or not, the education budget is up a little. That means that Alabama’s economy is improving because our growth taxes on sales and income are on the upswing.

What is on the education agenda for this year? Prior to the session, Democratic legislators were calling for a pie-in-the-sky 10 percent pay raise for teachers over the next two years. House Budget Chairman Jay Love said that any raise was iffy because it needed to be sustainable. However, Gov. Bentley in a surprise move called for a 2.5 percent pay increase for teachers in his State of the State address. It appears that the Republican legislature will go along with the governor.

The legislature’s priority for any additional revenue is the expansion of pre-kindergarten and distance learning. They also want to advance the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative and expand career tech in areas such as welding and robotics where students can learn a trade and be able to earn good wages.

The most controversial education issue appears to be a school flexibility bill. This measure is a Republican versus Democrat dividing issue. The Republicans have espoused the initiative as one of their hallmark “We Dare Defend Our Rights” agenda proposals.

Essentially, it would allow local school districts to design educational approaches best suited to their own areas. School districts could apply for waivers to allow them to opt out of fixed educational policies. Republicans argue that this allows local schools the flexibility to break out of the mold of one-size-fits-all. The House sponsor Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, says, “We have a system where one size fits all education.” The proposal has the support of State School Superintendent Tommy Bice.

The flexibility proposal is being adamantly opposed by the Alabama Education Association. They are calling it a backdoor attempt to create charter schools. AEA Executive Secretary Henry Mabry says the school flexibility proposal “could undo decades of academic standards in education and protections for education employees.”

Most Democrats are lining up with the AEA. However, you can probably bet your bottom dollar that the measure will pass. With a 2-to-1 majority in both chambers, the GOP generally prevails.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. He served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.