By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—In a recent interview with Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), the new Chairman of the Education Trust Fund, he told the Alabama Political Reporter that one of his top priorities for the 2016 Legislation Session is a pay increase for teachers:
“If the unpublished or unofficial projections bear out, and stay in the ranges that they are today, I would say, yes, [to a raise],” said Orr. “To what level or what amount, that would depend on the projections.”
Orr noted the highest priorities is a pay raise for K14, but certainly hoped the numbers stayed strong so that more could be done for educators. Orr said the reason K14 was a priority, is that those individuals were excluded from the last round of pay increases.
Orr appears optimistic about the ETF, but is cautious because of the recent Stock Market sell-offs the first two weeks of January 2016.
He also said that there was a need to take a closer look at Higher Education, and how those institutions are using tax dollars. “Within the Legislature there seems to be a need for more accountability in Higher Ed as to what they are doing with the State’s resources that they receive,” said Orr. “You have some institutions where the State support is very small (less than 20 percent) and others, say like West Alabama, where it is almost 50 percent, so it is a very large component of the budget.”
Orr believes there is real concern that the Legislature is just writing check without requiring more rigorous accountability. He says there is a need for a “closer review of how Higher Ed is expending its State resources.” He further explained, “I think all of the Higher Ed institutions can do better and by that I mean graduation rates and other metrics that we can use to evaluate what they are doing with the money that they have and then go from there.”
This will be the first Session in which Orr will lead the ETF budgeting process. After the 2015 Session, Orr and Sen. Trip Pittman swapped chairmanships with Orr heading the ETF while Pittman tackled the State General Fund Budget (SGF). Orr says he and Pittman have been working together on the budgets to face whatever challenges the State may confront. “Sen. Pitman and I will be working together on both the Education Budget and the General Fund Budget,” he said. “There are a lot of ideas and things to discuss with him that, given some of the harsh fiscal realities, we are going to be facing.”
Projections for SGF are believed to be as dire as last Session with projection of a $180 to $250 million deficit. Last year, lawmakers raised some taxes and took money from education to plug holes, but, as in years past, there is never enough because the fund lacks a revenue-generating growth fund.
“I think the General Fund Budget again will be the largest challenge for the Legislature particularly,” Orr said. He added, “I don’t detect any desire for new taxes among legislators nor do I detect any desire for taking education dollars without a dollar-for-dollar offset.” Orr remarked on how year after year the budget has survived by a last minute inflow of unexpected fund but doesn’t count on any such miracles anytime soon. “Again, I sense among the Republican side the lack of desire for taxes and the lack of desire for transference from Education. If those options are off the table, here again you are just looking at a cut budget,” Orr said.
He expressed concern that lawmakers would need to look at the bigger picture when it comes to cuts. “If those options [taxes and transference from Education], are off the table, here again you are just looking at a cut budget but you have to factor in the pushback that will come when Medicaid, let’s say, is having to pull people out of nursing homes or some of these critical state functions aren’t able to be funded, if that happens then where is the money going to come from?”
Orr hopes the ETF will enjoy the same bi-partisan support it received in 2015, but admits the SGF could once again present difficulties due to conflicting ideas on how best to address the systemic problems.