- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A House committee has voted to do away with a proposed bonus for education employees and instead put the money toward that group’s health insurance costs.

The House Ways and Means Education Committee voted 10-4 Wednesday for the new version of the Education Trust Fund budget. The spending plan strips away a one-time 1 percent bonus 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.

Republicans said using the money to minimize increases in insurance costs would help both active and retired employees. However, a top Democrat on the committee called the budget a “travesty,” saying teacher pay had been stagnant for too long.

Committee chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said a pay raise does no good if the recipient has to pay all of it toward higher insurance premiums.

“We can stretch that dollar farther to help our education employees,” Poole said.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said teachers have gone many years without raises while being asked to pay more for their health insurance and retirement benefits.

“Educators deserve a raise,” Ford said. He argued lawmakers could find room somewhere in the $5.9 billion budget for an increase.

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

Gov. Robert Bentley is seeking a 2 percent raise for education employees this year and has threatened to veto a budget that doesn’t include both the raise and additional insurance funding.

Poole said the state could not afford both.

“I don’t think we have those dollars available in our budget,” Poole said.

Despite the threat, the governor has a relatively weak veto in Alabama. Lawmakers could override him if a majority of elected senators and representatives agree.

Poole said the budget should also allow for the hiring of about 400 new teachers at the middle school level.

“We are hiring more teachers under the House budget. That can’t be lost in this,” Poole said.

The House budget bill would also restore $10 million that was cut from Alabama State University’s budget. The university’s president and supporters had lobbied for that money to be restored.

Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Montgomery, questioned several line items including an appropriation to a private military academy which has been in the budget for years.

“There are things in this education budget that do not belong there, and we all know it,” Todd said.

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