Alabama Senate approves education budget with more money for pre-k; no teacher raises



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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday approved a nearly $6 billion education budget that steers more money to the state's prekindergarten program.

Senators approved the Education Trust Fund budget on a 33-0 vote. The spending plan gives modest increases to some state programs but does not provide for a teacher pay raise. It also does not provide a fiscal lifeline that some policy makers wanted to throw to the state's more troubled budget, the General Fund.

Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee Chairman Sen. Trip Pittman said the spending plan attempts to build up reserves so programs and employee benefits can be sustained in future years.

"The economy is still improving but there is still some uncertainty there," said Pittman, R-Montrose.

The budget provides an additional $13.5 million to Alabama's often praised prekindergarten program. The additional funds are projected to let another 2,600 4-year-olds attend the preschool program. Gov. Robert Bentley has made it a goal to expand the program so it is open to all parents who want their children to attend.

During the debate, Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, noted teacher pay in Alabama has stagnated after raises have been outpaced by increases in benefit costs.

"Teachers in Alabama have not had a net raise in eight years. That should not go unnoticed," Ross said.

Pittman said the budget has limited growth to work with and legislators are trying to make sure that benefits can be sustained.

"Hopefully, we can look forward to better times ahead," Pittman said.

The spending plan also provides money for the hiring of an additional 70 teachers statewide in the 7th and 8th grades.

However, the budget approved by the Senate doesn't include what some hoped would be a fiscal lifeline to the state's General Fund, which pays for noneducation government functions.

Bentley and General Fund budget chairmen had discussed shifting use tax revenue — and some noneducation spending now paid for by the education budget — back to the General Fund.

Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the $50 million net increase would have been of little help to the General Fund, which faces a projected shortfall of more than $250 million.

Orr and the House budget chairman banked on the increase when circulating a draft budget that would see most state agencies cut by 11 percent. Those cuts would jump to a deeper 14 percent or higher without the use tax funds, Orr said.

Pittman said education programs can't afford to the give up the money without a guarantee that it would be replaced somehow. While Bentley has proposed a $541 million tax increase, Pittman said those proposals have met with heavy resistance from lawmakers.

Schools need a budget in place so they can begin planning for next fiscal year, Pittman said.

The Education Trust Fund budget now moves to the House of Representatives. House members are working on the General Fund budget.

"The House is ground zero for the revenue bills," Orr said.

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