Alabama education budget raises insurance funding

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Senate approved an education budget Tuesday that would increase funding for public education employees’ health insurance but would not provide a pay raise.

The budget for the 2014-2015 school year was worked out by a conference committee of House and Senate members. The Senate passed it 18-16 Tuesday night. It still must be considered by the House.

The state’s other budget, the $1.8 billion General Fund budget for non-education agencies, won final approval Tuesday night. The House of Representatives approved the budget on a 76-25 vote. The General Fund budget now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature.

The $5.9 billion education budget is about $97 million less than this year’s education budget. The budget increases funding for public education employees’ health insurance from $714 per employee per month to $780 to keep them from paying higher premiums. Gov. Robert Bentley had sought the increase along with a 2 percent cost-of-living raise. Committee members said only one item was affordable.

“People deserve a pay raise, but we have to be able to not only pay it but sustain it,” Senate budget committee Chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said.

Public school teachers received a 2 percent raise this school year, and Bentley sought another raise for next year because he said teachers helped the state through the recession by paying more toward their retirement and health insurance benefits.

Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said the 2 percent raise didn’t make up for the extra amounts the Legislature required education employees to pay toward their pension benefits in 2011.

“This is the first Legislature in decades that has given educators a pay cut and that’s inexcusable,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Rodger Smitherman of Birmingham said education employees expected the Republican-dominated Legislature to approve a raise after the Republican governor pushed for it, and not providing it will hurt the Legislature as it heads into the June election.

“He set the tone for the expectation of a pay increase,” Smitherman said.

The proposed budget includes 1 percent increases in funding for two-year and four-year colleges and a 2 percent hike for K-12 schools. It spends less than this year to repay money that state officials borrowed from a state trust fund to support public schools during the recession.

The budget provides a $10 million increase, or 35 percent hike, to expand Alabama’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds. It would add about 80 middle school teachers, far short of the more than 400 that the state school superintendent sought to try to reduce the school dropout rate.

House Ways and Means General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse said the budget includes $3.5 million for improvements at Alabama’s troubled Julia Tutwiler Women for Prison. The Department of Justice sent Bentley a letter in January saying that conditions are so poor that they violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The budget also includes $250,000 for a new prison ombudsman to handle complaints.

“I think that will help us solve some of the issues that we’ve had at the Department of Corrections,” Clouse said.

The budget sets aside $4.5 million to give state employees a one-time pay bonus of $400 in the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. However, state legislators still have to approve a companion bill that authorizes the bonus.

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