Governor proposes raise for teachersPublished 8:19pm Tuesday, January 14, 2014
By KERRY BEAN
Increased funding for pre-K programs, expanded dual enrollment for high schoolers, pay raises for teachers and state employees, new boards dedicated to small business and job skills development were among the proposals Gov. Robert Bentley made Tuesday night in his State of the State address.
But Bentley and state lawmakers — whose new session began Tuesday — will likely have less in the General Fund this year than last, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
“We have to keep working to make sure we are doing all we can to not only help people find jobs, but also help businesses continue to create those jobs, especially the nearly 400-thousand small businesses in the state,” Bentley said. “That is why I am creating the Small Business Advisory Council to address specific needs of Alabama’s small businesses. Nearly half of Alabama’s private sector workforce is found in small businesses.”
Bentley said he would also expand opportunities for students and residents to boost their job skills.
“We will present legislation creating a Statewide Workforce Council of business and industry leaders who will advise educators and colleges on the workforce needs on the types of jobs needed in each region,” he said. “We will expand the number of Career Coaches. We will expand Dual Enrollment Programs, so that students may attend high school and a 2-year college at the same time. We will also develop a marketing campaign and put a greater emphasis on teaching essential skills.”
Bentley said he would propose a 2 percent teacher pay raise and a 4 percent raise for state employees “if funds are available.” The Legislative Fiscal Office has predicted an increase of $134 million in the Education Trust Fund this year, but predicts the General Fund will be down by $83 million.
In the Democratic response to the State of the State, House Minority Leader Craig Ford said his party would propose more funding for workforce development and scholarships for dual enrollment.
“Vocational training is essential to the future of our state. It can give those who can’t afford or are not interested in a four-year degree a chance to get the education and skills they need to get a good job and make their dreams come true,” Ford said. “Education and job creation go hand-in-hand. If we want to bring jobs to Alabama, we must have a workforce that is ready to do those jobs. That is why it is so important that every child in Alabama has access to a quality education.”
Ford also pointed out that the Accountability Act passed last year — which was rewritten by Republicans to give tax breaks to parents in poor-performing school districts who opt to send their children to private school — has taken money away from public schools, and that only 52 children have opted to take advantage of it.
“Democrats will propose legislation to repeal the Accountability Act and use the money that is leftover to expand the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative,” he said.
At the start of the election year, Bentley also spent a portion of his speech denouncing welfare programs and explaining his stance against expanding Medicaid in Alabama.
“Those programs today have grown, expanded and have become a lumbering giant threatening our nation’s economic stability, national security and the very freedom of our people,” he said of federal programs intended to offer assistance to those in need.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would fund an increase of Alabama’s Medicaid rolls — an estimated 300,000 people — for three years, with reduced funding beyond that. But Bentley said the government could not be trusted.
“Here in Alabama alone, an estimated 300-thousand more people would be added to the Medicaid role, to a system that by our own admission is absolutely broken and flawed,” he said. “The federal government has said they will give us money to expand. But how can we believe the federal government will keep its word?”
Bentley said he could not support expanding Medicaid rolls because it would add too much to the federal deficit.
Ford said nothing about efforts to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act but did say Democrats would propose an extra $1 cigarette tax to help pay for a $100 million deficit in the existing Medicaid budget.
“Medicaid is critical to our economy and our healthcare industry. Seventy percent of payments to nursing homes come from Medicaid, while pediatricians and family doctors across the state depend on Medicaid to pay for vital services their patients rely on,” Ford said. “But for the past three years we have struggled to keep Medicaid from collapsing. There are no simple or easy solutions to the shortfall in the general fund budget. But raising the cigarette tax by $1 will generate $230 million annually for the general fund budget. That funding would shore up the $100 million hole in Medicaid and still leave enough for the pay raise for state employees and retirees.”