Alabama House narrowly approves education budget

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The House of Representatives on Tuesday narrowly approved an education budget that divided legislators over the lack of a pay raise for teachers.

Representatives approved the $5.9 billion Education Trust Fund budget on a 51-47 vote. The vote was atypically close in the House, where Republicans hold a lopsided majority.

“It’s a good budget. It’s a conservative, reasonable budget that puts money into our priorities. There’s a lot of things that we wished we had the dollars to do, and I think that is reflected in the vote count,” said House Ways and Means Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.

Democrats contended that teacher raises should be the first priority when building a budget, and the teachers association warned there could be election-year consequences for lawmakers.

“We can never pay them enough for what they do for our children, but at least we could have done more than what we have done in this particular budget,” Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans, D-Pleasant Grove, said during the debate. Thirteen Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the budget.

More than 100 retired education employees rallied outside the Statehouse ahead of the vote. Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Henry Mabry told the group that they will make their voice heard in upcoming elections.

The Alabama Legislature last spring approved a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for education employees, which was their first since October 2007.

The House budget stripped away a one-time 1 percent bonus for education employees approved by the Alabama Senate. Instead, an additional $37.7 million, a little more than the cost of the bonus, would go toward the Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan.

Poole said that should avoid large premium increases for current and retired education employees.

“I believe investing these dollars into PEEHIP health insurance stretches the dollar farther and is more effective and helps our education employees in a more significant manner. It helps actives and retirees,” Poole said.

Senate budget chairman Trip Pittman said the budget would likely go to a conference committee.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said education employees have had to pay more for retirement and insurance benefits over the past four years and that has eclipsed what they have paid in raises.

“They’ve abandoned our public educators and our public education,” Ford said.

Ford argued that the budget will give education employees another pay cut because it still left a shortfall in the insurance program.

Leura Canary, general counsel for the Retirement Systems of Alabama, said the PEEHIP board has other cost-saving changes that it can make such as encouraging the use of generic drugs. Canary said the House budget should avoid substantial premium increases.

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