Alabama governor’s proposal to divert funding earmarked for education to fill holes in budget sparks controversy
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has sparked debate among legislators about a proposal to use money earmarked for education to fill other holes in the budget, reports Education Week. Bentley plans to ask the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment to combine the state’s Education Trust Fund, drawn from income and sales taxes, with the separate General Fund, which pays for other government services. “Governor Bentley believes that a unified budget is the long-term solution,” says his spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis. “He has promised to do everything he can to avoid raising taxes.”
Although the governor hasn’t drawn up a specific proposal yet, he wants to begin discussing the issue as early as possible because he knows it will be a tough sell. The amendment would first have to be approved by legislators and would then go on the ballot for voter approval. The idea has drawn a favorable reaction from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and muted support from House Speaker Mike Hubbard, both Republicans, but other legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed serious doubts.
Alabama’s separate education budget is unusual. Michigan is one of the only other states with a similar setup. It actually had two discrete education funds — one for higher education and one for K-12 — until last year, when they were merged despite opposition from most Democrats and leaders in both K-12 and higher ed. Bentley is not the first Alabama governor to consider tapping the state’s education fund. His predecessors George Wallace and Fob James both failed in trying to capture education money for general use.
Bentley’s plan could be a welcome fight for the Alabama Education Association’s new leader, Henry Mabry, who’s come out strongly opposed to the merger. It could also unite the K-12 and higher education community, says Bill Stewart, an emeritus professor in political science at the University of Alabama. “Even though the AEA and the higher education folks are at each other’s throats,” he says, “this is one thing they can agree on.”
The commingling of education and general funds may be one of Bentley’s few options in a state that faces a budget squeeze but is adamantly opposed to any increase in taxes. In presenting the idea last week, Bentley said education funds could help support health care and the corrections budget, but Stewart says those issues don’t have the same political support. “It’s very easy to pick on prisoners,” he says.
Source: Education Week, 1/17/12, By Ben Wieder (Stateline.org)
[Editor's Note: In July 2010, Legal Clips summarized an article in Courthouse News Service reporting that Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) had filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Los Angeles County alleging that the county was illegally letting local development agencies take a "staggering" amount of money that should be going to public schools. The school district claimed it would be cheated out of more than $200 million in the next 45 years, and that other schools and the state itself would be cheated of billions of dollars if the practice was allowed to continue.]