Ken Hare In Depth: Medicaid expansion, teacher pay hike eyed - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

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Ken Hare In Depth: Medicaid expansion, teacher pay hike eyed

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

A look back at recent news events:

Gov. Robert Bentley is continuing to leave the door cracked -- just a little bit -- on the possibility of expanding Medicaid in Alabama under the federal Affordable Care Act.

In an appearance this week, Bentley said in response to questions that his administration was looking at an expansion.

"We have not made a final decision on that yet, exactly on how that will work," he said.

But Bentley, a medical doctor, has toyed many times before with the emotions of those who support expanding Medicaid as perhaps the best way state government could improve health care for Alabamians.

This time, maybe he will do something other than just tease supporters.

By now most readers know the background: Under the ACA, the federal government covers 90 percent  of the cost of expanding Medicaid to cover people earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. That works out to a little less than $16,000 for an individual and a little more than $32,000 for a family of four.

If Alabama expanded Medicaid, it would cover at least 150,000 Alabamians -- most of them the working poor, since the non-working poor are among the 1 million Alabamians who currently are covered by Medicaid. As many as 300,000 new Alabamians could be covered, depending on how the state molds any expansion.

Alabama already has missed out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars by not expanding the program earlier. As an enticement to get states to expand, the federal government offered to cover 100 percent of the costs for three years. But that window probably would have closed before Alabama could get an expansion up and running.

There are legitimate hurdles for the state to overcome in any expansion, with the most troubling is how the state would come up with its 10 percent match. Bentley says that would cost the state $700 million over the next few years. But infusing 10 times that amount in new federal dollars into the state's economy would, according to some economists, spur enough new tax growth to more than offset the state's investment.

Regardless, if Bentley is going to live up to his promise to dramatically improve health care in his remaining time in office, Medicaid expansion seems to be his best, and perhaps only, avenue to do so.

LISTEN TO BICE, RAISE TEACHER PAY

State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice is proposing that the Legislature next year approve a 5 percent pay raise for Alabama teachers, part of a three-year plan to move teacher pay up over the next three years to offset a 10 percent increase in inflation since 2008.

Bice made his proposal to the State Board of Education this week, and received generally positive comments from several board members. But it's not the board he needs to persuade; it's the Legislature.

The 5 percent raise would cost about $160 million a year, well within growth projections in the Alabama education fund. But it would come at a time when some legislators are eyeing balancing the state's General Fund budget by diverting funding from the Education Trust Fund.

Anything less than a pay increase exceeding current inflation would be unfair to existing teachers, who have seen their pay eroded by inflation over the past half-dozen years. They deserve not only to keep up with future inflation, but at least some catch-up with what has happened in the past.

But the real need to raise teacher pay is based not just on current teachers, but on future teachers as well. Bice told the board that the number of students who are entering teaching education programs in the state's colleges has declined by 45 percent since 2008.

While some board members raised the possibility of a teacher shortage, I worry about another issue as well -- the likelihood that the state could allow marginal teachers into the profession to avoid such a teacher shortage.

STATE RETIREES HAVE REASON TO BE CONCERNED

With the Alabama Legislature strapped for cash and looking over the shoulder of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the state's current employees and 340,000 RSA retirees have reason to be concerned.

I say that despite supposedly reassuring comments by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, a  co-chairman of the new Joint Committee on Alabama Public Pensions.

I  have written many times over the years that it would be a disaster for legislators to start making political decisions about how or where to invest RSA's billions.

But it also would be a disaster -- perhaps a slower developing one, but no less a disaster -- for legislators to back away from their responsibility to adequately fund retirement for state employees and teachers.

To its credit, the Legislature for the most part has responsibly funded retirement programs in the past. But the unrealistic view of state revenues on the part of many lawmakers, coupled with some problematic funding issues with the General Fund, raise the threat level to retirees substantially.

NEWSPAPER LOSES TWO VETERANS

Please allow me a personal observation about two old comrades in the newspaper business.

The Montgomery Advertiser recently announced that two veteran editors -- Jim Earnhardt and Rick Harmon -- were moving on to other challenges.

I worked alongside both men for most of three decades, and knew them as two of the most knowledgeable and dedicated journalists in the business. Their loss to the profession is enormous. 

I have seen newspaper staffs shrink drastically since I came to Alabama in the late 1970s, but this loss represents more than just fewer bodies. Earnhardt and Harmon and others like them in newsrooms across the state reflect a huge loss in institutional memory and professionalism. That loss, and similar losses in the other large newspapers in the state, make it more difficult for the news media as a whole to live up to their watchdog and First Amendment responsibilities.

Earnhardt and Harmon both have moved on to other jobs, and they will do well in them. But newspapering in Alabama will suffer nonetheless.

Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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