Published Online: February 28, 2014
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's Republican governor and some Republican legislators are looking at maneuvering around one of the campaign promises that their party used to win control of the Legislature four years ago.
The education budget proposed by Gov. Robert Bentley and a slightly different education budget approved by the state Senate would spend more than the cap imposed by the GOP-backed Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act. The act, often called the "rolling reserve act," got passed over the objections of Democrats in 2011.
"It's hypocrisy," House Minority Leader Craig Ford of Gadsden said.
He said Democrats plan to use the upcoming legislative elections to make an issue of the law and Republicans' skirting of law. If Democrats win back control of the Legislature, they will repeal the law, he said.
When Democrats controlled the Legislature, former state Rep. Greg Canfield of Vestavia Hills used to propose the Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act without any success. The legislation called for the state to end its practice of writing an education budget based on forecasts of how much tax revenue the state might receive. That process resulted in the governor having to cut school spending in the middle of the school year nine times between 1979 and 2009 because appropriations ended up exceeding revenue. The cuts are called "proration."
The rolling reserve legislation caps spending based on state revenue growth over the past 15 years. In years when revenue is growing, the extra money above the cap is set aside in a stabilization fund and used to support public education in years when the economy is down.
In August 2010, Republican legislative leaders and party leaders released their "Handshake with Alabama," which was a list of bills they promised to try to pass if their party won control of one or both houses from the Democrats in that November's election. The Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act was a key part of the platform.
With the help of the platform, Republicans won control of both houses in the November 2010 election and ended 136 years of Democratic domination in the Legislature.
When the new Legislature convened in 2011, the budgeting bill was the first major bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Bentley.
"We're trying to do what's fiscally right, fiscally proper," Bentley said in 2011.
The governor and the Legislature went above the law's spending cap in 2012 by moving around sales tax revenue so that it wouldn't be counted against the cap.
In the current legislative session, Bentley has recommended a $6 billion education budget that goes $92 million above the cap by moving around sales tax revenue again.
"We're not trying to circumvent anything. It's just a way to do the things we feel are necessary like the 2 percent pay raise and funding the programs we want to fund without building up a very large stabilization fund that just sits there," he said.
The $5.9 billion budget approved by the Senate on Thursday evening goes $23.4 million above the cap. It doesn't include the 2 percent raise recommended by Bentley, but it does include a one-time bonus of 1 percent. The amount above the cap is equal to the amount in the budget being used to shore up Alabama's prepaid college tuition program.
Committee Chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, designed the committee's budget and was a sponsor of the rolling reserve act. He said he would prefer not to go above the cap, but money for the prepaid tuition plan was promised by the Legislature when Democrats controlled it. He said the rolling reserve act has resulted in the Republican-led Legislature passing education budgets that haven't needed trimming in the middle of the school year and has allowed the Legislature to pay back much of the money that the Democrat-controlled Legislature borrowed from a state trust fund to support public education during the recession.
"I think the discipline instilled by the act is helping us live up to our obligations," he said.
Republicans are making those balanced budgets a key part of their re-election platforms this year.
A former Democratic budget chairman, Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville, said Alabama was the first state to enact a rolling reserve act. Traditionally, when one state legislature comes up with a good idea, other states quickly copy it, but no state has copied the rolling reserve act, he said.
Bedford said the reason is clear: "This is hindering the budget process."
Bedford argues that the rolling reserve cap limits spending so much that schools are going without critical equipment and programs.
Ford promises that voters will hear more about the rolling reserve act leading up to the November elections.
"The governor is right to spend the money on our children's education. After all, that is what that money was meant for. But by doing it this way, the governor and legislative leaders have proven that the rolling reserve act is a bad law that needs to be repealed," he said.
Back to Top