Ken Hare In Depth: State budgets, for good or bad, pass
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Alabama Legislature delayed until the penultimate day of its regular session to finally pass the state budgets for the coming fiscal year, but to lawmakers' credit they did not allow the education and General Fund budgets to languish until the final day when there is little time for debate and all sorts of mischief can happen.
But while lawmakers deserve credit for the process of passing the budgets, it remains to be seen whether the substance of what is in those budgets ultimately will win them more praise or more criticism.
As is usually the case, whether the budgets for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 are seen as good or bad depends upon the eye of the beholder.
That's especially true of the $5.8 billion education budget, which represents a 3.6 percent increase in spending over this year.
Most segments of public education will see that as a positive step, despite virtually all areas of public education getting less than what they had hoped to get but more than they got this year.
But the Alabama Education Association and many Democrats in the Legislature were critical of the budgets, especially the 2 percent across-the board pay increase for K-12 public school employees.
AEA Executive Secretary Henry Mabry said the negative impact of tax credits granted by the Legislature for private school tuition for students zoned for failing schools resulted in the teacher pay increase being smaller than needed.
"It's unfortunate that the largest expenditure in the first new money since the Great Recession is being spent on parents of private school children," Mabry told the Associated Press.
The AEA and many Democrats in the Legislature were calling for a 5 percent increase for teachers. Gov. Robert Bentley recommended a 2.5 percent increase.
Mabry is right that the tax credits in the so-called Alabama Accountability Act will have an impact on the education budget. But frankly, how much of an impact it will have remains to be seen. To say that estimates vary widely is an understatement.
However, even without the tax credits, I believe that a 5 percent pay increase for teachers was never in the cards. Legislative Democrats may as well have been calling for a 25 percent increase, because neither was going to pass. The Democrats were saying what the AEA wanted to hear, but in doing so mostly showed how irrelevant they have become in the Legislature.
The governor's 2.5 percent proposal generally was seen as the upper limit of what was possible for a teacher across-the-board pay increase. If Democrats had pushed for that amount, they may have had some impact.
(An aside: Headlines and news stories often point out that teachers have not received a pay increase since 2007, but that's not exactly correct. Legislative mandated increases to their pay scales are not the only way teachers see their pay go up. They also get modest increases based on experience, and those who work to get advanced degrees also get higher pay.)
There is no arguing that some across-the-board increase was overdue, but with the uncertainty of the economy and the impact of the tax credits it probably was prudent of lawmakers to keep the K-12 increase at 2 percent.
The budget contains no specific pay increase for public higher education employees, but public colleges do get more money and could choose to spend it on higher pay.
The education budget allocates an additional $9.4 million for the state's much-lauded voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds. Again, that is less than proponents sought and less than the $12.5 million that Gov. Robert Bentley included in his budget proposal.
But it still should be enough to add about 1,500 students statewide to the pre-K program. Alabama is in the unusual position of having a pre-K program that has been recognized as one of the best in the nation, but also has been criticized for reaching only a small percentage of children who are eligible.
General Fund tight -- as usual
Despite an uncertain but still growing economy, the state's General Fund for non-education agencies remains in poor straits.
The $1.7 billion General Fund budget for the coming fiscal year will grow by less than one-half of 1 percent. That means most state agencies will be level funded or see decreases, but the state court and prison systems will get increases.
Courts are budgeted for $108 million for next year -- more than they received this year but still less than they got last year. The administrative director of the state court system said that likely would mean layoffs for about 150 employees of the court system.
The Department of Corrections will get an increase of more than $17 million, but that is still less than the governor recommended. The agency is currently undergoing an investigation by the federal government of sexual abuses of women prisoners that could result in the need for more spending on security and personnel.
Once again, there is no across-the-board pay increase for state employees in the General Fund budget. State employees last saw a legislatively mandated pay increase in 2008, and virtually all have not had merit increases in several years. In addition, they face increases in insurance costs and have seen their retirement benefits trimmed.
The Medicaid system is among the agencies that are essentially level funded, but the agency still faces a shortfall in revenue of more than $120 million in fiscal 2015.
Again, whether these budgets will be seen as good or bad will depend greatly on the perspective of those affected.
As with all budgets, the quality of the Legislature's actions cannot truly be judged until a year or more later.
By then, the public will know if the revenue is there to support the spending in the budgets. If not, the governor will have to declare proration and order spending cuts to bring spending in line with revenues.
By then, the public will have seen the impact of likely reductions in Medicaid services and how that affects Alabamians. They may have seen the results of the federal investigation of Alabama's prisons, and whether there is enough money to provide necessary improvements to security. They likely will know how many agencies will have to further reduce services and cut personnel through layoffs or attrition.
And they may finally get a realistic understanding of the financial impact on public school funding of the tax credits the Legislature provided for some private school students.
Only then can there be a realistic judgment on whether these are good or bad budgets. So stay tuned.
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 email@example.com.
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