- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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.

Exactly what the state could afford has been an issue of disagreement among lawmakers during the budget debate.

Poole said the House-passed budget only has about $92 million more for K-12. A 2 percent raise for K-12 employees carries a price tag of about $68 million.

“The math just doesn’t work. It’s critical we balance the needs of our education employees with the needs of our children and our classrooms,” Poole said.

Gov. Robert Bentley proposed a 2 percent raise plus additional insurance funding in his budget but accomplished that by shuffling $92 million in sales tax money to skirt a spending cap, based on past fund growth, that Republicans passed in 2011.

Ford said Democrats wanted to introduce an amendment to restore the Bentley proposed raise and funding mechanism, but did not get the chance to do so. Republicans cut off debate after about two hours.

The House budget also skirts the spending cap by rerouting $23.6 million in sales tax to the prepaid college tuition program. Republicans argued that was a justifiable use of the money.

Ford said the spending cap creates an artificially tight budget constraint. “I don’t understand if we can violate it to a certain degree, why can’t we violate it to the nth degree,” Ford said.

The House-approved budget also provides money for the hiring of about 400 additional middle school teachers across the state and gives an additional $10 million to the state’s voluntary prekindergarten program.

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