Budget will fix problems
Published 9:35 am Wednesday, February 8, 2006
The taxpayers of Alabama, aided by Alabama's strongest economy ever, have produced a record $500 million budget surplus in revenue earmarked for education. The biggest battle currently underway in the Legislature is what to do with this one-time surplus in the Education Trust Fund. I urge citizens to follow this debate and get involved, because what the Legislature does with this windfall will have a long-lasting impact on the future of Alabama.
I've proposed directing our education surplus right back into our schools and colleges. Nowhere is the need greater. I've had the opportunity to visit schools all across Alabama, and I've seen schools that are literally falling down around their students. One school I visited in Cherokee County had police tape around some areas because it was unsafe for the children to walk near that part of the school. Several others I visited don't have a fire alarm system. A four-story high school in Tuscaloosa I recently went to doesn't have an elevator, and the principal told me handicapped students sometimes have to be carried up the stairs to get to class. These are just a few examples of school needs we must address..
No one is in a better position to understand how critical our schools' needs are than local school superintendents, and the board of their statewide association - the School Superintendents of Alabama - has unanimously endorsed my proposal. They recognize the tremendous obstacles that unsafe, dilapidated schools pose to children.
Despite the obvious building needs of our schools, there is opposition in the Legislature to putting the education surplus back into our schools. The opponents claim they'd rather “save” the surplus in case of a future emergency.
Actually, what they plan to do is spend this one-time money on the recurring expense of a larger pay raise for education workers. That's a recipe for disaster because it will lead to proration.
My budget proposal fully funds the state's Rainy Day Fund to protect us against proration, it includes a pay raise for teachers, and it still funds the $500 million in school improvements. The opponents of my plan ignore the obvious building needs of our schools today and instead they want to put the surplus into a separate account for future use on larger pay raises.
State government has repeatedly made this mistake in the past. We've put one-time funding into recurring expenses. Then, when the money runs out but the expenses remain, we're forced into proration and have to cut classroom funding.
It doesn't have to be that way. The best way to protect ourselves against proration is to budget responsibly, and that means we shouldn't spend one-time money on recurring expenses like opponents of my plan want to do.
The education budget I've proposed repays all the money owed to the Rainy Day Fund, bringing it up to its maximum level. This will protect our schools against any unforeseen drop in revenue. My budget also fully funds all the learning requests made by the K-12 system and the higher education system. It fully funds the health insurance program for teachers, and it includes an affordable, well-deserved pay raise for them.
Unfortunately, election-year politics pose a real threat to this plan. Opposition to addressing our schools' needs now is being organized by Paul Hubbert, the head of AEA who also serves as the vice chair of the Alabama Democrat Party. Last year, Hubbert's AEA newsletter criticized me for not including more money in the budget to help schools with their repair and maintenance needs. The truth is the money was not available last year to address these problems. Now that the money is available, Hubbert is leading the opposition against using it to help our schools.
This type of partisan politics has held us back for too long. For some in the Legislature, it must be a reflex: “If someone from the other party is for it, then I need to be against it.” When it comes to our children and their ability to learn in a safe, modern school, partisan politics should stop at the school house door. I hope our parents, our teachers, and all Alabamians who agree will let their legislators know how important it is to use these one-time funds to fix our schools.