MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley isn't getting support from key Republicans or Democrats for his proposal to delay private school tax credits for budgetary reasons for two years.
But Bentley is not giving up on his efforts to try and get the Legislature to pass his proposal on its last meeting day Monday. The Republican governor said he sent letters to all legislators Friday, and public school officials were helping out by encouraging legislators to support a delay.
The architect of the tax credits, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, said a delay isn't needed, and top Democrats said a delay isn't enough. They are insisting on a repeal of the tax credits.
The dispute adds one more big issue for a final legislative day that already includes major legislation on gun regulations, several bond issues and welfare drug testing.
Bentley said the state can't afford to offer the tax credits with the new school year that starts in August. "If we have a downturn in the economy next year and a lot of people take advantage of the tax credits, we are going to have a difficult time," he said in an interview Friday.
The tax credits are part of the Alabama Accountability Act, which the Republican majority in the Legislature pushed through Feb. 28 and Bentley then signed into law.
The new law provides school systems with flexibility in complying with state education laws, and it provides tax breaks of about $3,500 a year for parents who decide to send a child to a private or non-failing public school rather than a public school rated as failing.
Bentley is seeking to delay the tax credits until 2015 because he said that would give failing schools time to use the new flexibility provisions to improve. Also, the state must repay $423 million by 2015 - money that was borrowed from a state trust fund in previous years to prevent widespread cutbacks in education spending.
The fiscal year 2014 education budget that Bentley proposed at the start of the legislative session included $100 million to help repay the loan, but the Legislature reduced it to $35 million. The state expects to pay back $200 million in the budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, but that would leave $188 million to be repaid in fiscal year 2015. Bentley said that financial obligation prompted him to change his mind about the tax credits and seek a two-year delay.
Marsh said he intends to block the governor's proposal either by getting the Legislature to reject it or by not bringing it up for a vote on the last day.
"We've worked too hard between both chambers of this Legislature to make school choice a reality and I refuse to kick the can down the road," Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
Another supporter of the new law ,House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, is still talking to House members and hasn't announced what he will do Monday, his spokeswoman, Rachel Adams, said Friday.
The Senate Democratic Caucus and House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gasden, said they won't accept anything short of a repeal of the tax credits because the loss of tax revenue would damage public education.
"The governor already realized what the people are thinking and saying - that this is a bad bill," Democratic Sen. Billy Beasley of Clayton said at a news conference Friday.
Bentley was in a similar position a year ago after signing a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature to crack down on illegal immigration. In May 2012, he tried get the Legislature to remove a portion of the law that required schools to determine upon enrollment whether a child and his parents had legal residence in the country. Bentley couldn't find legislative support for his proposal, but the federal courts later blocked that portion of the law, he recalled.
He said a loss Monday in the Legislature won't change his mind about the need for a delay. "I may lose this battle, but if you listen to the people of Alabama we are going to win the war," he said.