The rise of the education budget chairs
Left: Senate Education Finance and Taxation Committee Chair Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. Right: House Ways and Means Education Committee Chair Danny Garrett, R-Trussville. (File)
House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, wanted to run the chamber with a lighter touch.
His idea was to give his Republican members more autonomy in developing and passing legislation.
And Ledbetter kept his word. Apart from a renewed emphasis on getting representatives to the chamber on time — difficult in previous sessions — members have seemed to have more freedom than years previous.
It’s the same story in the Senate. There have been flare-ups from individual members, but for the most part, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, has aimed for consensus, a necessity in a chamber where a single senator can slow the entire process.
But when you talk about power shifting to members, it feels like power shifted to two legislators in particular: Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
Those are the two education budget committee chairs.
To be sure, both men already enjoy powerful positions. They oversee the $8.8 billion Education Trust Fund budget, the main source of public school funding and the major repository of Alabama’s income and sales taxes. The governor may propose a spending plan, but it’s the committee chairs who shape the document before the Legislature votes.
But Garrett and Orr have taken on a few more roles this year.
Garrett was the face of the economic development package that zipped through the House in April. He sponsored a bill to change the composition of the Literacy Task Force, which created some tension with House Education Policy Chair Terri Collins, R-Decatur.
Orr sponsored a measure to require the Ethics Commission to hand over potentially exculpatory evidence to targets of investigation. He sponsored a potentially significant overhaul of the state’s open records law (which awaits a vote in the House).
You can attribute some of this to the large number of freshmen in the Legislature this year. With so many people learning the process, experienced legislators tend to get more responsibilities. (Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, also carried a large portfolio this year as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.)
Still, the sway both men had over legislation is notable.
Look at tax policy. Legislators went into the session expecting to deliver rebates to income taxpayers in the state. Gov. Kay Ivey called for it in her State of the State address.
But the size and scope of those rebates boiled down to a discussion between Garrett and Orr. Ivey had proposed $400 rebates. Orr, citing the potential hit to the education budget, set it at $105 per individual. Garrett went to $210. In the end, they settled at $150.
The grocery tax reduction — something Democrats had sought for years — wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the session started. But pushes from liberal and conservative groups, and broad support in the Legislature gave it momentum of its own.
And then there’s SB 101.
The bill, sponsored by Orr, makes some significant changes to the Education Trust Fund budget, in particular the 2011 Rolling Reserve Act that created savings accounts to defend against economic downturns and provide capital and technology funding.
SB 101 would limit increases in the Education Trust Fund to 5.75% of the previous year’s budget by 2027. To put this in perspective: the state’s fiscal year 2024 Education Trust Fund budget, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey last week, is $537 million higher (6.5%) than the budget legislators approved last year. If that cap was in place today, there would be $62 million not in the budget next year, or very close to next year’s budget for school nurses ($65.6 million).
The bill, signed by Ivey on Thursday, also reallocates the distribution of excess money in the Education Trust Fund. It creates a new account called the Education Opportunities Reserve Fund. A supplemental appropriation bill put about $354 million into the fund.
As the bill describes it, the Education Opportunities Reserve Fund could offset any future shortfalls in the state education budget. But the money could also be used for “start-up or transitional support for initiatives that provide access to enhanced educational opportunities to all public K-12 or higher education students in the state, or both.”
That’s very broad language. It’s easy to see any number of programs, not all related to public education, that could fit this description. Withdrawals from that fund can only be done through supplemental appropriation bills — which almost always come from the education budget chairs.
Sitting on a pot of cash for “access to enhanced educational opportunities” will make legislators even more disposed to being your friend.
It’s unwise to make predictions about the Legislature. New legislators get more confident as they go through the processes. The similarly-large freshman Republican class of 2010, who largely did what leaders told them in their first year, had turned into ornery seniors by the fourth. Perhaps the education budget chairs step back from some legislation in the years ahead.
But the brand-new reserve fund could give the chairs even more leverage in the coming years, over funding and education policy. It could erode the powers of the leadership or create rivalries in chambers designed for unitary rule.
We could end the session with more empowered legislators. It’s just that some may be more empowered than others.
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