Gov. Kay Ivey calls special session on ARPA money; pushes for charter schools, tax rebates
Annual State of the State also includes calls for teacher pay raises
Gov. Kay Ivey waves to the crowd during her State of the State address on March 7, 2023. (Stew Milne for ALabama Reflector)
Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session Tuesday to spend ARPA money, and also said she would push for tax rebates and more state support for charter schools.
Education was the major theme in the 29-minute State of the State address, in which the governor also called for more magnet schools in the state and “improvements” to the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows students attending the lowest 6% of schools to attend other schools.
“Folks, our students… our young people are why our work today matters and why we must get it right,” Ivey said. “Everything we do today is for a better tomorrow for these children and all of the families who call Alabama home.”
The speech also called for 2% pay raises for teachers; tax rebates and the passage of a bill imposing mandatory minimum sentences on individuals convicted of trafficking fentanyl.
The State of the State came at the end of the first day of the 2023 legislative session. Ivey’s special session, to begin on Wednesday, will put the regular session on hold for at least two weeks.
The special session will focus on spending over $1 billion sent to Alabama under the American Relief Plan Act (ARPA). Ivey proposed that the lawmakers put it towards “major and needed endeavors” like broadband, water and sewer infrastructure and health care investments. The Legislature last year put most of the funds from the first installment of ARPA money into those areas, though it also used $400 million in relief funds to build prisons.
“Let’s wisely invest these federal monies to overcome some of our biggest challenges, while also paying off our debts,” the governor said.
Speaking after the Senate adjourned on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed, R-Jasper, told reporters that he believed that they are in “good starting place” for federal funds but that different members will have their own “thoughts and ideas.”
“Moving forward, we’re going to be anxious to see here, to understand from the membership as to topics that they have,” he said.
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said there were “critical areas” that needed to be addressed, such as a number of water systems that went down during the sub-zero temperatures in December.
“So that is a very critical issue for us to look at, because if it gets down again, sub-zeroes again, we’re probably expect the same thing to happen,” he said.
Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, said that he hopes the money will be invested in infrastructure and business.
“We heard some of the priorities that the governor has tonight and so, certainly the priority is using the remaining COVID money to put towards areas that are needed to invest in long term, which will hopefully promote a job friendly environment because, obviously, one of the one of the challenges we’re having with the COVID money is inflation,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said ahead of the address they can only “spend the money on so many different places.”
“We’ll try to help them out,” he said about any counties that may have felt left out on previous rounds.
The governor also called for more start-up funds for charter schools, changing the governance of the Charter School Commission and establishing health care destination magnet school, to be located in Demopolis.
“When these students receive their diplomas, they will be ready to fill a broad spectrum of health care jobs or pursue a higher education,” Ivey said.
She also said that the state should no longer accept “failing schools” and called for funding to find “personalized” approaches to improving schools.
“No longer are we letting family income or any other barriers define a child’s ability to obtain the quality education they do deserve,” she said. “Instead, we are tackling these critical issues head-on by taking an individualized approach, examining and acknowledging the specific needs of each school and providing crucial resources to our disadvantaged school systems.”
Ivey said in her inaugural address in January that she wanted to prioritize charter schools, though she did not spell out details.
Republican legislators said after the speech on Tuesday that they were looking into ways to use to existing laws, including the Accountability Act, to support charter schools. Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, the chair of the House Ways and Means Education Committee, said he believed the 2013 law could be used to provide funding for charter schools.
“I think we use the Accountability Act to do a number of different things by choice options,” he said. “I think we’ll see additional funding, probably in that program.”
Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, the chair of the Senate Education Policy committee, said legislators were looking at increasing caps for eligibility for scholarships under the Accountability Act from 185% of the poverty line to 300%. Chesteen also said bills to change the governance of the Charter School Commission were being developed, though he did not have details.
Legislators have previously discussed education savings plans, such as proposed legislation from Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, that would allow roughly $6,000 dollars to follow a student from their zoned school to a different school of their parents’ choosing.
Legislators in the past have had mixed responses to the proliferation of charter schools in the state, with some believing that charter schools may disadvantaged school districts in rural areas.
After the speech, House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, told reporters that “if the dollars follow the child” to charter or private schools, there should be oversight.
Singleton said earlier on Tuesday that he expected charter school discussions this year. But the senator said families in his rural district may not have a lot of options.
“When you talk about school choice, the question is school choice for who?” he said. “When you look at rural areas that I live near, there may not be no choice.”
The governor invited Terry Saban, wife of University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, as a special guest. Saban and her husband have the charity “Nick’s Kids,” which supports children, family and school-related issues.
Active causes include an all-inclusive playground in Tuscaloosa and the Saban Center, a Science, Technology, Arts and Math (STEAM) learning center, per their website. Ivey said that the state will be joining the Saban Center as a partner, though she did not spell out its exact role.
Pay raises and tax rebates
Ivey also called for a 2% pay raise for teachers, following a round of historic pay raises last year. The governor said she wanted Alabama teacher starting salaries “to be the highest in the Southeast by the end of my term.”
“I want Alabama to be aggressively working to recruit, retain and prepare the teacher of tomorrow,” she said.
She also called lawmakers to approve a “first grade readiness” bill that would mandate kindergarten education, citing results from Alabama’s pre-k program. She told those gathered that she had instructed the Department of Early Childhood Education to prioritize funding for classrooms in the “most challenged” areas of the state.
Ivey asked lawmakers to approve one-time tax rebates of $400, or $800 for “working families.”
“Folks, this is people’s money, and it’s only right, while still acknowledging we are recording revenues far exceeding normal and sustainable levels, we give a fair share of this money directly back to the people of Alabama,” she said.
Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, said that he hopes that the money would be used in ways that would benefit Alabama in the long run, rather than in a one-off event.
“People are having a tough time right now and getting some extra money in their pockets helps in the moment, but this is also a one-time opportunity to invest in things like Medicaid, using that extra money for services that are going to really benefit people in the long run, not just on a one-off basis,” he said.
The governor also announced a $200 million grant program to be known as the Main Street Program to help revitalize small cities and towns. She said that she would sign an executive order on Wednesday that would cut “red tape” on business regulations. She did not say what regulations would be cut.
The governor also called for support for law enforcement officers and military in Alabama. She asked lawmakers to pass a bill that provides mandatory minimum sentencing for fentanyl trafficking. She said that she had told the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to make combatting fentanyl a “top priority.”
Ivey also called for raises for corrections officers, but she did not specify a percentage. The governor did not otherwise comment on violence in state prisons that has led to a federal lawsuit, and was the subject of a vigil on the Alabama State Capitol steps on Tuesday night.
Ivey focused on the future of the state and highlighted the state’s natural beauty. She said that these things could attract future workers to the state.
“As we look ahead to a future filled with rich opportunity and great possibility, I pledge that we build on our roots by focusing on getting the hard work done today, while never forgetting that our work now matters most to future generations,” she said.
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