By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Tuesday, the Alabama House Ways and Means Education Committee held a public hearing on the Education Trust Fund fiscal year 2019 budget.
Committee Chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said this is a very good budget. Education employees will receive a 2.5 percent pay increase across the board.
The trust fund budget will be roughly $6.7 billion in 2019. The committee will provide reporters with spreadsheets Wednesday morning.
June Jackson said that she was speaking on behalf of giving education retirees a $400 one time bonus. “It has been since 2007 that employee retirees have gotten any increase, but the cost of living has increased.” A bus driver who retires after 25 years of service only gets $700 a month pension check.
Education retirees get no raise or bonus in the House budget as introduced.
Paula Larida, the executive director of the Athens Public Library said that public libraries are the backbone of the education system.
“I am glad that there is more funding for that essential education infrastructure that offers equal access to everyone in our community,” Larida said. “This is true lifelong learning for everybody.”
The Co-Chair of the Alabama School Readiness Task Force Bob Powers urged the Committee to put us back on track to our goal of fully funding pre-K by 2023. This year, 30,000 four year olds applied, but only 17,000 were accepted.
Powers said that a study by UAB showed that students in pre-K were more likely to be proficient than their peers on state assessments, and nationally, they are more likely to graduate, do better in the work force and go to college.
“We have been very supportive of every budget and we are supportive of this budget, but I would like to point out some things that we could do better,” Alabama Education Association Representative Susan Kennedy said. “One of these is providing a bonus for retirees. We have $659 million available in reserve accounts for education. We have too many needs to continue to stock money away when we already have $659 million in reserves for proration. Not adding to the rolling reserve fund this year could free up $65 million. That is enough for a bigger pay raise, the retiree bonus, and fully fund pre-K and leave additional money for other things for higher ed. The economy is doing well. The only way classroom teachers can get a raise is if you give them one. If Tennessee and South Carolina pass the raises they have planned, then only Mississippi and Arkansas in the Southeast would have lower teacher pay than we do. When those guys or gals that work in that will work at the Toyota-Mazda plant, they could too send their kids to school in Tennessee, even some of our teachers are going to go to Tennessee. It has been 11 years since teachers got anything, and the teachers got one, but it got eaten up by the pension cost increase. I appreciate the chairman, and I have never asked for a raise when we didn’t have the money. We have the money, and I am asking for it today.”
“I want to tell you how appreciative we are of your willingness to sit down and talk to us about education and workforce development,” two year college system Chancellor Jimmy Baker said. “We made a commitment to you a year ago that we would become more data-driven, and we are making strides to be more data-driven.”
Acting State Education Superintendent Ed Richardson said he was a proponent of the bill and called it a “strong budget.”
Richardson said that he was grateful for the additional funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative. He told reporters that the state is lagging on performance for reading and that emphasizing teaching reading by the end of the third grade needs to be a focus.
Richardson thanked the Committee for funding a program to attract science and math teachers to underserved areas.
Richardson said that Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative is only level funded, or did not get an increase, which is what we agreed. “We need to conduct an objective study of that program to confirm that it is doing what it is supposed to do. I hope the next person who has this job will continue that.”
State Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said, “The last pay raise was 2016. We passed that, and six months later the PEEHIP board came back and took 6 percent of that on the back-end. I hope the board does not do that again. There are 90,000 education retirees. If each of them got $400, that would be $36 million. We have the money. It is a good budget, and I know the Senate is going to muddy it up. It is great to go back home and tell our educators they are getting a small raise; but it is not great to tell our retirees that they are getting zero.”
State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said, “I think we have to find a way to do something for retirees. I expect that the Senate will.
Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, asked, “What is the amount of the PEEHIP request?”
“They requested level funding,” State Rep. Bill Poole, chairman of the committee, said. “I would be disappointed if there was a premium increase. For TRS, the increase is 7.1 percent.”
State Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, complained, “Once something gets in the budget, it never gets out of the budget.” She pointed to the Alabama Motor Sports Hall of Fame as an example.
“I will have some amendments tomorrow. I don’t expect you to pass them, but this is my last budget,” Todd said.
Todd announced last week that she would not seek another term in the Alabama House of Representatives. She complained in that announcement about the ethics law which has made it difficult for her to find a job. Todd said receiving a subpoena in the ongoing campaign finance investigation was “the last straw,” prompting her to announce her leaving the legislature at the end of this term.
Poole said that the Committee would meet again today at 9 a.m. to vote on the Education budget. He said that the bill could be on the floor of the House as early as Tuesday next week.
Alabama has two budgets the Education Trust Fund budget and the State General Fund Budget with different moneys earmarked for each fund.