Lobbyists express concerns over 2010 education budget

Eryn Phillips

The Alabama Legislature opened its session Tuesday after Gov. Bob Riley’s State of the State address, which made it clear that officials and lobbyists have work to do.

Key issues facing the Legislature this session include the state’s poor economic condition, the potential legalization of gambling and improving school systems.

Riley filed his budget proposal Wednesday, adding $469 million to the state’s education trust fund. Leaders have since asked where this money would come from, considering current economic conditions.

Amy Marlowe, analyst for the Alabama Education Association, said the money is being budgeted using stimulus funding in Washington that has not been voted on yet.

“When we heard over $400 million dollars could be going towards our schools, we thought it was Christmas,” Marlowe said. “However, this is not money we think can be counted on so we’re back at square one.”

The goal of the AEA is to analyze past education budgets and find ways to make up for any shortfalls due to record high unemployment and low spending, she said.

All funding public schools and universities receive in the state come from the education trust fund. However, the fund is currently $1.4 billion short for financial year 2009 education budget. Because of the deficit, hundreds of teachers have been laid off as well as supply shortages in schools.

“Members of the Legislature should come forward and push for an overhaul of Riley’s original proposal.” Marlow said. “In the meantime, the AEA hopes they move slowly and methodical and hope for guidance from Washington.”

Bill Jones works as the University’s lobbyist and he says he is keeping the students’ best interest at heart while in Montgomery.

“If everyone will recognize that all areas of the economy are down and until it picks back up, we must ride out the storm,” Jones said.

The governor’s proposal has entered the first of eight phases of debate and voting among committees, House and Senate voting.

“Obviously compromise has not been met.” Jones said. “There is always very little resemblance between the governor’s budget and the outcome.”

Jones said the University has funding available for students who are facing financial turmoil in the form of scholarships, grants and some loans.

The debate over whether or not to legalize gambling in the state has been on the governor’s slate for most of his eight terms in office, but lobbyists have been unsuccessful in trying to get legislation passed.

The AEA supports the legalization and taxation of gambling, which has been an ethical dilemma for representatives, particularly among Republican representatives of the Bible belt for years.

“It is irresponsible to budget for something we don’t have.” Marlow said. “Gaming is the biggest industry in Alabama that remains tax exempt, and if it’s going to continue to generate millions, it must be taxed heavily.”

Due to the upcoming gubernatorial race in November, Jones said he thinks a solution regarding state deficits and gaming will be reached in a timely manor while keeping the voters interest first.

State lawmakers will be in session until April 19, when they must have passed an amended budget, giving them 105 days to reach an agreement before going into special session.