Special session focuses on education

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Gov. Don Siegelman called several legislators together this past week to present his plans for covering the accumulated deficits in the education budget which funds our public schools in elementary and secondary education as well as our college systems.

The discussion was centered around two presentations n one concerning kindergarten through high school and one on higher education. Without judging the accuracy of information disseminated to those of us who were present, I will report to you the statements offered and the plans presented by the governor and his senior administration staff.

The governor opened the meeting by saying that he did not intend to make any further school budget cuts and based his anticipated action upon finding a solution through legislative action in a forthcoming special session.

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With respect to the effects of future proration of funds on kindergarten through high school, the governor and his staff said that without additional funding, there would be over 1,000 teacher layoffs, class sizes would increase by 5 or more students on average, technical classes would be cut out of curriculums, extracurricular programs would be at least partially eliminated, there would be no new textbooks during the current school year, and bus routes would be longer.

With respect to higher education, the governor and his staff said (without further proration) that tuition at Alabama's two-year and four-year colleges would be increased, a number of college professors would leave the state for better salaries in other places, courses and programs would be cut, and economic development and job growth would be adversely impacted.

This paints a bleak picture and certainly some of these concerns could become reality. However, it is not uncommon for an administration to promote a very conservative situation when trying to get the legislature to act on proposed solutions to problems, especially when it might involve a tax increase.

Gov. Siegelman offered a plan which has two primary components. First, he suggested that legislation be passed to close a series of corporate tax loopholes that he feels has created a several million dollar education shortfall. Secondly, he is recommending implementing a minimum tax on large corporations. The finance director noted that he felt these two bills would produce at least $150 million during the fiscal year.

So far, the governor has not proposed a property tax or sales tax increase. There are several public interest groups, such as the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama Association of School Administrators, that are pushing for more long-term solutions to the school budget problems. I do not know the official position of either of these groups, but a number of their membership have contacted me to urge the approval of property tax increases. They consider this a more stable source of revenue than either the sales tax or the income tax.

Problems related to school funding are nothing new to our state. Since 1949, the state education budget has been prorated 14 times. Finding a new funding source for our schools would certainly be the biggest step in eliminating the deficits which continue to plague us, but that is not the total solution. The legislature needs to set up a &uot;rainy day fund&uot;, it needs to look closely at its budgeting priorities, and we may even need some reorganization of our school systems in the state.

As your senator, I will certainly give consideration to any plans being promoted by the administration, and if you have any ideas on how to solve this complex budgeting problem, I welcome and solicit your views and recommendations.

Remember, &uot;I'll go with you or I'll go for you&uot; to help you solve any problem related to state government. My mailing address is PO Box 225, Luverne, Alabama 36049.