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Education budget advances out of committee


The Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee gave a favorable report to the fiscal year 2020 Education Trust Fund budget, which has been languishing in the Committee for the last three weeks.

Senate Bill 199, the Education Trust Fund budget, is sponsored by state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

The state of Alabama has a bizarre accounting system where schools and universities are in their own separate budget, the ETF. Prisons, Medicaid, the courts, state troopers, mental health, public health, the Department of Human Resources. forensics, and dozens of state agencies are funde in the state general fund (SGF). To make things even more complicated fuel taxes go into a separate fund, the road and bridge fund, which funds the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT). State agencies bring in $three to four billion in off budget revenue and spending; then the state uses its $13 to $14 billion in combined spending to draw down $billions more in federal matching dollars.

The Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee is tasked with taking the governor’s education budget and then accepting its principles or rejecting parts of the governor’s budget.

No governor has their budgets completely adopted by the legislature and this year was no exception.

When the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was reauthorized, Congress voted to revert to an 80 percent federal: 20 percent state match. The Obama administration had previously paid for it 100 percent. It was thought that CHIP would be a $115 million a year hit to the general fund, split between Alabama Medicaid and the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH); but Gov. Kay Ivey (R) moved the largest portion of that from the Department of Public Health to the education budget. When the House passed the general fund budget three weeks ago, they accepted Gov. Ivey’s budget recommendation. On Tuesday, Orr took the opposite position striking CHIP’s $36 million ETF line item out. That would have grown to $89 million in the 2021 budget.

“I asked her not to do that,” Orr told the Committee.

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State Senator Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham said, “CHIPS has no business in the Education Trust Fund.”

“This was one of our decision,” Orr said. “With 106 million carried forward, my thinking was that they (the SGF) can absorb a carry forward this year. That may be different in 2021.”

The move gave the Senate another $36 million to spread out to the various ETF programs. The ETF was already soaring with money due to the booming economy. All state income tax dollars are earmarked by the Alabama Constitution for the ETF.

CLAS, which trains and mentors principals, got an increase.

“The principals are the backbone of the schools,” Orr said.

The committee accepted Gov. Ivey’s request that $25 million additional funds be spent on Pre-K.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance supported the Gov. and the Committee on this.

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“Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is the nation’s number one ranked state pre-kindergarten program for quality, but the amount of funding currently appropriated leaves two thirds of Alabama’s four-year-olds unable to participate,” said Bob Powers, the president of the Eufaula Agency and a co-chair of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force. “Expanding access to Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is not only the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. We thank the Senate Finance & Taxation Education Committee for prioritizing the $25 million expansion, and we encourage the full Senate to follow suit.”

Thirty-two percent of Alabama 4-year-olds currently receive state-sponsored First Class Pre-K services.

Orr said that, “Computer Science for Alabama was a request by the state department (of Education).”

The budget included a 350 percent increase for charter schools.

Smitherman said, “Why are we funding them to tear up our public schools. I have got a problem with that.”

The budget restored a line item for PALS, people against a littered state. PALS teaches children not to litter. That line item had been zeroed out years ago.
Symphony in Education got its own line item.

“Board Certified Teachers needed to increase that to allow for test taking,” Orr said.

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The state has a pilot program to combat bullying in the schools.

“We needed to do something about bullying across the state,” Orr said. “Suicide in many cases is a result of bullying. This is a new effort for the state.”

The Robotics pilot program got an increase. “I have heard that it was a big success,” Orr said. “I believe it was a good success for districts across the state.”

“Scholars bowl got $100,000,” Orr said. “The Gifted grant program that is a bill that we passed last year where the schools apply for grants. The state department runs it.”

This was the largest budget in the history of the state for K-12 education; but Orr said that higher education funding, despite a big increase this year, is still not at 2008 levels.

Transportation got more money to get high mileage buses off of the roads. The Committee gave a favorable report, despite some misgivings about the formula dividing the highest education money between the institutions.

The ETF could be considered by the full Senate as early as Thursday.

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The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee will have to figure out how they want to address the CHIP program in the SGF budget after Tuesday’s decision by the Education Committee.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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