By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — Speaking to a crowd of college students gathered on the steps of the Alabama State House on Thursday, Gov. Robert Bentley promised to continue his support for higher education.
“We have great universities in this State,” Bentley said. “Funding for universities has to be adequate. It’s never enough, but we really need to continue the increase that we’ve tried to do. In fact, every year, in the budgets that I’ve submitted, we have always increased it every year for the past seven years.”
Bentley said he would ask for a raise for universities in this year’s Education Trust Fund budget also.
“We’re going to continue to do that, and we did that this year also,” Bentley said.
Last year, the Legislature allocated state universities $1,082,061,686 for the 2017 fiscal year, an increase of about $32 million or a little more than 3 percent from the 2016 fiscal year. But the Governor’s budget proposal for this year calls for no increase in appropriations.
In fact, the Governor’s proposed budget for FY2018 matches the actual FY2017 Education Trust Fund appropriations exactly: $1,082,061,686. Given the nature of the Legislature, and the weak influence of the office of the Governor, his proposal is likely to be cut.
If it is cut, placing the budget below last year’s total, it wouldn’t be the first time that public colleges and universities have had their budgets slashed during Bentley’s term. In the 2012 fiscal year ETF budget, appropriations for Alabama’s 14 public universities were $1,042,496,236. The next year, they were cut by $40 million to $1,006,261,538.
An increase in funding available through earmarked funds made up for the difference, but the Governor and the Legislature have little to no control that funding. Public universities receive about $6 billion every year in earmarked funds, which have grown steadily.
Gordon Stone, executive director of the Higher Education Partnership, reiterated calls from rallies of years’ prior: The Legislature should raise higher education appropriations to one-third of the Education Trust Fund budget.
Stone said universities suffer when state appropriations go down or don’t rise to meet increasing costs, which, in turn, results in higher tuition rates for college students.
“From 2006, our tuition has gone up 50 percent,” Stone said. “We can change those numbers.”
Hundreds of students and representatives from the 14 member universities of the Alabama Higher Education Partnership attended the rally, which featured speakers such as Bentley, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who chairs the Senate Education Weighs and Means Committee.
Orr, unlike Bentley, made no budget promises.
“I’m not going to yell, and I’m not going to scream,” Orr said. “I’m going to tell you this: We live in a poor state. … We need you. When you graduate, we need you to stay, live, rear a family, get a job and stay here in Alabama.”