By Ben Wieder, Stateline Staff Writer
Weeks before Alabama’s legislative session is scheduled to begin, Governor Robert Bentley has sparked debate among legislators about a proposal to use money earmarked for education to fill other holes in the budget.
The Republican governor, entering his second year in office, 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.”
She says Bentley hasn’t drawn up a specific proposal yet, but wanted 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, according to the Associated Press. “There are some people who think that if the money leaves education, it will never be returned,” Republican Representative John Merrill told the Tuscaloosa News. House Minority Leader Craig Ford told the same paper, “We as Democrats will fight to preserve funding for schools.”
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. But Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for Michigan’s Budget Office, says it's unlikely that education funds will be combined with the general budget.
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. “That’s probably the biggest defeat of Governor Wallace’s career,” says Glen Browder, an emeritus professor at Jacksonville State University who has served in Congress, the Alabama House of Representatives and as Alabama’s secretary of state. “It is an uphill battle for Governor Bentley.”
But Bentley faces a different set of circumstances than his predecessors. For one, Republicans control the House, Senate and governorship for the first time since 1874. There’s also been a change in leadership at the powerful Alabama Education Association. Its former leader, Paul Hubbert, directed the organization for more than four decades, served as co-chair of the state’s Democratic Party, and ran a credible campaign for governor himself in 1990. In 2010, many credited him and the AEA for helping Bentley defeat his Republican opponent, Bradley Byrne, in a runoff election for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Hubbert is retired now, but Bentley's plan could be a welcome fight for the AEA’s new leader, Henry Mabry, who’s come out strongly opposed to the merger. “He’s a question mark,” Browder says of Mabry, a former state finance director. Defeating Bentley on the merger of the funds, Browder says, “would help him to let the education community see that he could be a strong leader.”
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.