Alabama Senate approves Education Trust Fund budget amid project debates

By: - May 4, 2023 6:01 pm
Arthur Orr reviewing papers at a podium

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, reviews files during a debate in the Alabama Senate on April 13, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama Senate Thursday approved a nearly $9 billion education budget and a modest round of tax rebates. 

The legislative package, mostly sponsored by Senate Finance and Taxation Education Chair Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed with little opposition, but spurred a debate over the size of proposed tax rebates and floor changes to the proposed Education Trust Fund budget and a supplemental appropriation bill.  

ETF package

  • SB 262, sponsored by Sen. William Beasley, D-Clayton, which provides supplemental funding to Tuskegee University. It passed 32-0.
  • SB 93, sponsored by Sen. Jay Hovey, R-Auburn, which provides money to Southern Preparatory Academy. It passed 32-0.
  • SB 111, sponsored by Sen. Lance Bell, R-Pell City, which provides money to Talladega College. It passed 32-0.
  • SB 101, sponsored by Orr, which makes changes to the Rolling Reserve Act. Among other measures, it creates the “Educational Opportunities Reserve Fund.” It passed 32-0.
  • SB 269, sponsored by Orr, which creates the K-12 Capital Grant Program within the office of the lieutenant governor. It passed 34-0.
  • SB 278, sponsored by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, which creates the “the Distressed Institutions of Higher Education Revolving Loan Program.” It passed 33-0.
  • SB 267, sponsored by Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, which creates the “Athletic Trainer Secondary School Incentive Program.” It passed 34-0.
  • SB 85, sponsored by Orr, which provides a 2% pay raise to public education employees. It passed 34-0.
  • SB 86, sponsored by Orr, which provides a one-time tax rebate of $105. It passed 30-3.
  • SB 88, sponsored by Orr, which is the Education Trust Fund. It passed 35-0.
  • SB 87, sponsored by Orr, which relates to the supplemental appropriations. It passed 35-0.

Orr’s tax rebate proposal, costing about $273 million, would give resident income tax filers $105. Gov. Kay Ivey had proposed rebates of $400. 

Orr said that the difference between the governor’s proposal and his version would go into the “Educational Opportunities Reserve Fund,” established by SB 101.

“Half a billion dollars is going into a savings account which is where we’re going to put the rebate money to take care of future needs, particularly because we’re concerned about the future of the economy and we have a lot of programs that we need to keep funding, such as the Numeracy, the Literacy Act, the teacher matrix,” Orr said. 

Senate Democrats said the benefit of a $100 rebate would pale next to the $275 million expense of distributing it.  

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said $100 amounts to one bag of groceries, which is not enough to feed a family.

“$275 million is too much money to just throw to the wind giving everybody a fish, and tomorrow I’m still hungry,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, called the $105 an “insult” to the taxpayers. 

“We live in a microwave society,” he said. “Okay, people don’t use the stove no more to cook food slow and get a good texture out of the seasoning that they put into their food to cook it slowly

Orr argued that taxpayers would be happy about conservative spending in a few years. In conversation with Singleton, Orr said that local school districts will be in trouble after the ESSER funds run out in the coming years when they will no longer be able to afford the staff with the federal funds.

Singleton told Orr that the Alabama Legislature, unlike the federal government, cannot “print” money. He said that he will take the rebate and he picks pennies up off the ground, but he wishes the rebate would not go to him.

Singleton said they should be more like Massachusetts, which consistently ranks at or near the top of public education rankings. Massachusetts spends roughly $8,000 more per pupil than Alabama, according to the U.S. Census.

The $8.8 billion budget, about $537 million higher than this year’s budget, increases the allocation to colleges and universities by $105.9 million (roughly 7%); the K-12 Foundation program by $211.3 million (roughly 4.96%); the community college system by $35.53 million (roughly 7%); funds for transportation by $26.6 million, (roughly 6.6%); and the department O&M increased $510,995, (1.7%).

The budget includes 2% pay raises for education employees. Teachers with more than nine years’ experience will get an additional 1% pay increase.

Funding changes?

A man hunched over looking at papers.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, reviews documents on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

Orr told reporters after that there has been discussion about changing the funding model for Alabama schools. Orr described a model that sounded similar to the Weighted Student Funding  model, which applies weights to student need categories to calculate how much funding is needed in an area.

“I know what we’ve discussed and even done some exploratory work in that it’s a model where you would take a baseline amount for all students and then you would to look at certain factors like poverty or special needs or whatever the student populations reflected, and then appropriate accordingly on that,” Orr said.

On the floor, Orr substituted a new bill for the Education Trust Fund, which, among other measures, includes funding for school support staff and school nurses.

Orr said the goal is to bring support staff into a certain hourly rate. He said that some school systems are already there due to local funding.

The senator also filed a substitute for a supplemental appropriations bill. The new bill added more than $10 million dollars to the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, the agency responsible for higher education in the state. It also increases funding for  National Guard Educational Scholarships by $2.6 million; adds $270,000 for the Best and Brightest STEM Pilot Program, an incentive program for STEM graduates; increased deferred maintenance funding by $5 million and adds $4.5 million for Retain Alabama, which helps people get back into college.

It also increases funding for the University of West Alabama for technology needs in Selma University, the Black Belt Scholars program and more money for deferred maintenance.

The lieutenant governor’s grant program was cut $5,000,000.

The substitute also allocates funding to the Department of Human Resources for the Beacon House, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Indian Affairs scholarship program.

Singleton sought $2.2 million a proposed speciality school for healthcare training in Demopolis. He said that taxpayers could receive $103 rather than $105.

Orr urged the Senate to vote against the amendment, saying there is $500,000 for a study of where to put the healthcare school in the supplemental.

The amendment failed 8-20.

“I would like to thank this body for telling little babies in West Alabama that they don’t mean nothing to you all, but these other special projects that we got out here means everything and that’s why we going to always be number 50,” said Singleton.

Local concerns

Senators from the Montgomery area also tried to secure money first proposed by Gov. Kay Ivey for economic development in Montgomery. reported was related to the water park currently in development. 

Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, said he had “geographical” concerns, saying that it’s important for the people who go to Maxwell Airforce Base in Montgomery have a good experience in their time there, including but not limited to the schools in Montgomery.

Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said the funding was about economic development in the area. He said he’s concerned that resources have not gone to the capital city.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman submitted a “friendly amendment” and said he believes there was an “innocent” omission of Lawson State Community College in the Alabama Centers for Rural Healthcare Opportunities.

Orr said there are two other colleges he mistakenly omitted, and Orr confirmed the amendment was friendly. He said that the other schools, which he did not name, would be added in the House of Representatives.

In response to a question from Barfoot, Orr said he was unclear whether that included conversion charter schools. Barfoot said the “language” was satisfactory to him because of legislative intent that would include conversion charters.

Orr told the new members that this is an “unprecedented budget.”

The bills move to the House of Representatives.

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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.