Gov. Bentley seeks pay raise for teachers; new money expected next year
by Tim Lockette
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley delivers his State of the State address Tuesday to a combined session of the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery. (Associated Press photo by Dave Martin)
MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley called for a pay raise for teachers and more money for pre-kindergarten education in his annual State of the State address.

But for other state employees — their ranks thinned by nearly 4,000 in the past two years — there’s less hope of a pay increase.

“As our economy improves, I expect this raise to be the start of what we hope will be far greater and more frequent raises our teachers,” Bentley said of the teacher pay raise.

Bentley’s speech marked the end of ceremonies for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2013 session and in many ways it reflected the dual problem facing the Legislature this year. After years of hardship, the state’s education system is finally seeing a mild improvement in its fortunes, but times are still lean for other government agencies.

Officials of the Legislative Fiscal Office told lawmakers Tuesday morning that Alabama’s schools are likely to have $237 million in new money on hand in the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That would bring the total education budget — which is tallied separately from other state agencies — to about $5.8 billion next year.

In the General Fund, which pays for other government functions, times are harder. The Legislative Fiscal Office projects that revenues for the $1.67 billion General Fund would be down by $28 million. State Finance Director Marquita Davis offered a more optimistic projection, $1.74 billion. Still, both Fiscal Office officials and Davis said the General Fund wasn’t growing significantly in the long term, while growing costs of Medicaid and the prison system are taking up more of if its money.

The Legislature doesn’t face the kind of crisis it saw a year ago, when a major shortfall led to the state taking $437 million from a state trust fund to shore up the General Fund for three years.

Lawmakers have filed a bill that would require that money to be paid back over 15 years. In his Tuesday speech, Bentley urged legislators to pass it quickly.

“The first bill to my desk must be the one that requires repayment to the Alabama Trust Fund,” he said. The governor also touted savings the state has made since the beginning of his term, noting that the state government now operates with about 4,000 fewer employees than two years ago. There are now fewer than 35,000.

Despite the austerity talk in the General Fund, Bentley said he supported expanding some education programs, including the state’s pre-kindergarten program, which proponents say would help close the academic gap between middle-income and poor students in the state. Earlier this month, one lawmaker proposed increasing the pre-K budget by 63 percent, from $19 million to $31 million. Bentley didn’t name a dollar figure.

State schools Superintendent Tommy Bice said he didn’t know how much the governor wanted for pre-K, but he was glad to have the governor’s support for more funding.

“Studies show that the money you spend on pre-K has a 17-to-1 return on investment,” he said. “Who wouldn’t like that?”

Bice said he was “elated” by the 2.5 percent pay raise proposal. But not everyone was so sure. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he wasn’t comfortable giving a pay raise to educators while other state employees go without.

“I’m hesitant to give a raise to one sector of government employees while others miss out,” Marsh said.

Bentley opened his State of the State speech with allusions to the civil rights movement, which placed Alabama on the world stage 50 years ago. But after praising the nonviolent protesters of the 1960s, he touched on states’ rights themes that have become a commonplace of Alabama’s political rhetoric. He promised to defend the Second and Tenth Amendments.

“The states created the federal government, and not the other way around,” he said.

Republicans in the Legislature have launched a wide array of bills intended to challenge federal authority, from a bill that protects guns made in-state from federal regulation to a bill that would allow some institutions to opt out of requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

Democrats called on Bentley to relent in his opposition to one aspect of Obamacare. Bentley has declined to expand the state’s Medicaid program to 300,000 new clients, a move that would be paid for, in the first three years, by the federal government. Bentley has said he can’t expand the program under its current structure. Critics say the expansion would bring billions in new money into the state’s economy.

“The State of Alabama cannot afford to say ‘no’ to $20 billion being injected into our economy that will create and save jobs that our state desperately needs,” said Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, who delivered the Democrats’ response to Bentley’s speech.

Irons also criticized cuts to the state Department of Mental Health in recent years, saying that the violence in Newtown, Conn., shows the need for better mental health services.

Immigration, a hot issue in past sessions, got little mention from legislators Tuesday. But as spectators walked out of the Capitol after Bentley’s speech, they were face to face with about 100 protesters with signs and candles, organized by the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

Brandon Vela, a 14-year-old Clanton resident, was among them. He said he was the group’s spokesman.

“I would say to Gov. Bentley, you are a powerful person,” Vela said. “Even though I might not have as much influence as you, I hope you will consider what immigrants do for Alabama.”

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
© 2013