published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Alabama governor wants unified education, general fund budget

PHILLIP RAWLS, Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Gov. Robert Bentley is planning an ambitious second year, starting with asking the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment combining Alabama's two state budgets into one and allowing some money now allocated for education to be spent on state agencies.

Bentley said Tuesday he's also developing plans for a bond issue of roughly $2 billion for highway projects at the county and state level, but he's not sure when he will propose it.

"I like to stir things up, and I can tell you we are going to do that," Bentley told the Birmingham Kiwanis Club in a speech that recounted his first year in office and looked ahead to his second, which begins next week.

Bentley said that in the legislative session starting Feb. 7, he plans to propose a constitutional amendment that would end the tradition of Alabama having a budget for education and a separate General Fund budget for non-education programs, such as Medicaid, prisons and state troopers. He said Alabama should have a unified budget like 47 other states have and some, but not all, of the tax revenue set aside for education by state law must be made available for other uses.

"I'm not opposed to some earmarking," he said.

Alabama is No. 1 in the nation in how much tax revenue is set aside by the state constitution or state law for specific purposes: 84 percent. For instance, the state income and sales taxes are set aside for education. Other governors, including George Wallace and Fob James, have proposed changing that without success. Bentley said he knows freeing up tax revenue will be tough, even with a new Legislature controlled by his fellow Republicans, because it is traditional in Alabama.

"I may lose it," he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the Legislature is looking at serious shortages in the General Fund budget for non-education agencies, and that makes this a good time to look at ideas for changing the budget-writing process. Marsh said freeing up some tax revenue appeals to him and would give the Legislature more flexibility in budgeting.

"We all agree we want ample dollars for education, but we have to look at what's best for the state as a whole," he said.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said he agrees with Bentley that more flexibility is needed in the budget process.

"Having so much spending predetermined makes it difficult to manage needs that arise, especially in years like this. However, we need to make sure funding for education isn't negatively affected before moving forward on a plan to reform the budgeting process," he said.

Bentley told the Kiwanis Club that he thinks the change can be made without affecting students. "I will never do anything to hurt the classroom. I will never do anything to hurt teachers," he said.

The new executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, Henry Mabry, said there is no way the governor can keep that promise if he goes ahead with his plan.

He said Bentley's plan could result in fewer teachers, larger class sizes or a shorter school year. "You don't improve education by taking money away from it," he said.

The teachers' organization has been a leader in stopping past efforts to repeal state laws setting aside taxes, but that was when Democrats controlled the Legislature. Mabry, a former state finance director, said taxes got earmarked by the Legislature because there were strong constituencies supporting them, and many legislators still support the reasons for those earmarks.

"I don't think he will have votes," Mabry predicted.

If the Legislature approves Bentley's proposed constitutional amendment, it would have to pass muster with voters in a statewide referendum.

Bentley said his proposals to the Legislature in his second year will also include the legalization of charter schools and programs to help reduce the state's unemployment rate.

For the first time publicly, Bentley said he is developing plans for a bond issue of about $2 billion for road and bridge construction. He said the bond issue, which would be the state's largest for transportation, would be shared by county governments and the state Transportation Department. The governor said he is looking at possible funding sources, but has made no decisions, including when he might propose it to the Legislature.

Bentley said the money is needed to fix aging bridges that are restricted in how much weight they can carry and to have adequate maintenance of Alabama's existing roads.

"Let's preserve the roads in this state first before we talk about everybody in the state having a four-lane highway," he said.

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