House budget seeks to do away with teacher bonus

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A House committee will consider a new version of the education budget that does away with a teacher bonus and instead uses the money to try to prevent large increases in education employees' health insurance costs

The proposed substitute budget before the House Ways and Means Education Committee this week eliminates a one-time 1 percent bonus for public education employees approved by the Alabama Senate. Instead, an extra $37.7 million, a little more than the cost of the bonus, is put toward the Public Education Employees' Health Insurance Plan.

"A pay raise does no good if the recipient has to pay every dime of it, and perhaps some extra, toward higher insurance premiums if PEEHIP went underfunded," said committee chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.

Poole said the proposal is a responsible budget that "sets proven programs as a priority all while utilizing taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible."

A lawyer for the Retirement Systems of Alabama said the extra funds should prevent large increases in the premiums that education employees pay.

"The house budget will prevent substantial increases in health care costs, including premiums, for educators, support workers, retirees and other PEEHIP members and families," Leura Canary, general counsel for the Retirement Systems of Alabama, said.

The head of the Alabama Education Association lashed out at the proposal saying the education employees have gone years without raises while being required to chip in more for their health and retirement benefits.

"The Republican legislative leadership is simply petty, spiteful, and vindictive against educators," AEA executive secretary Henry Mabry said.

The Alabama Legislature last spring approved a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for education employees, their first since October 2007. However, Mabry and others said that raise was less than increases to employees for benefit costs.

Gov. Robert Bentley called for another 2 percent raise for education employees in his State of the State address that kicked off the session.

Bentley in a statement released on Twitter last week said he would not sign any budget that didn't include a 2 percent raise for education employees plus additional PEEHIP funding.

Despite the veto threat, the governor has a relatively weak veto in Alabama. Lawmakers could override him if a majority of elected senators and representatives agree.

Lawmakers are grappling with competing demands for pay increases, insurance costs, other education needs and compliance with a 2011 budgeting reform that Republicans championed when they took over the Alabama Legislature.

Bentley had proposed spending more than GOP legislators by shuffling $92 million to get around the Education Trust Fund spending cap set by the 2011 Rolling Reserve Act. The law sets an ETF spending cap based on fund growth over the last 15 years. State law requires any money that comes in over the cap to go to repay debt to a proration prevention fund or to a budget stabilization fund.

Bentley said funding the 2 percent pay raise for teachers, which carries a $73 million price tag, and meeting other education needs would otherwise be difficult to do.

AEA has urged lawmakers to repeal the Rolling Reserve Act, saying that it creates artificially tight budget constraints and redundant savings accounts.

"The Republican leaders of the House and Senate are setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars in savings, but they are dead set against providing fair compensation to our teachers and support professionals. Gov. Bentley has said the money is there for a pay raise, and our educators have already paid for it themselves in the $200 million taken out of their pockets from pay cuts," Mabry said.

The chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee, Republican Trip Pittman of Daphne, said last week that the state can't afford the raise the governor is seeking.

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