Increases for textbooks and prekindergarten will be included in a $6 billion budget that received a unanimous vote of approval from the Alabama Senate this week.
The Education Trust Fund was voted in with a 33-0 vote, which is rare on spending bills, but there may be a different vote when it comes to the state's $1.86 billion General Fund. This is a source of money for all non-school state agencies and it faces a $256 million shortfall next year, says Tim Lockette of The Anniston Star.
Although Governor Robert Bentley planned to shift some tax revenue from the education budget to the General Fund, the education budget did not reflect the transfer. Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the General Fund, says the loss will amount to $50 million.
In Alabama, the state government is run on two budgets. Sales and income taxes go to schools through the Education Trust Fund, and an assortment of other tax revenue goes to prisons, Medicaid, state troopers, and other departments which depend on the General Fund.
In 2008, the education budget took a blow, but it has been increasing steadily since. On the other hand, the General Fund struggles to stay flush.
The upcoming 2016 school year will reflect the budget growth with a $13 million increase for textbooks, a $5 million raise in state aid to fund school buses, and salaries for 70 new teachers for middle school classes. Alabama's growing prekindergarten program will receive an added $13.5 million, which is a 35% increase over funding for the current school year.
The budget does not allow for a pay raise for teachers. Senate Democrats pointed out that the increased amounts teachers must pay for health care and retirement means that any pay raise that has been given since the end of the recession amounts to nothing.
"Teachers in Alabama have not had a net raise in eight years," said Sen. Quinton Ross, (D-Montgomery). "That should not go unnoticed."
Bentley proposes a $541 million tax increase to begin the fix so drastically needed by the General Fund. One part of the plan is to move more of the state's use tax, which is a sales tax on goods purchased by mail along with other out-of-state purchases, to the General Fund.
"Obviously, there has been some resistance, to put it mildly, to the proposals the governor has made," Pittman said. He said he'd be willing to revisit the budget later in the session.
Planners of the General Fund have seen the writing on the wall and have released a budget that shows non-school state agencies cut by an average of 11%, which would handle the difference, if Bentley's tax increases are accepted.
"Everyone understands the seriousness of the situation," said Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee chairman Trip Pittman, (R-Montrose). "They want to get an education budget passed and give certainty to the education community."
The Montgomery Advertiser's Brian Lyman writes that the budget also includes an increase of $10 million for daily expenses, a small increase for the state's ACCESS ( a high school distance learning program) and Advanced Placement programs.
The legislators are not even close to being finished with the budget reforms. The education budget now moves on to the House of Representatives, says Mike Cason, reporting for the Alabama Media Group, and the General Fund budget will now begin being reviewed in the House. Lawmakers will continue budget talks this week and will still need to vote on any of Bentley's measures to increase revenues by $541 million.