By MARY SELL and Caroline Beck, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — On their last day of the legislative session, lawmakers approved a record education budget, took a step toward medical marijuana legalization and sent to Alabama voters the decision to scrap the elected state school board in favor of a governor-appointed commission.
After debates and a change, a bill to give new teachers in the state more generous benefits died in the House without a vote.
The $7.1 billion budget required a conference committee to work out differences in previously passed House and Senate versions. The final budget includes:
- A 4% pay increase for K-12 and community college educators and staff.
- An increase of at least 7% percent for all state universities;
- A $20 million increase for a broadband internet grant program;
- A $26.8 million increase for the state’s First Class Pre-K program;
- A $34.8 million increase for the state community college system.
Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, chairs the education budget committee in the House.
“We worked hard in the Legislature to get a rural broadband grant program up to try to get more service in unserved areas,” House education budget committee chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said. “That’s a positive move in that direction and follows some amended legislation that passed this session.”
The House-version of the budget had cuts community colleges’ increase, but Friday’s version restored about $6 million of that funding.
“The community college system is very important, particularly in rural Alabama,” Senate education budget chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur said. “They touch a lot of lives.”
The increase for Pre-K is a record and brings their total funding up to $122.8 million. The additional funding will allow for an additional 193 classrooms and allow the nationally recognized program to reach 40 percent of eligible 4 year olds.
Voters in March 2020 will get to decide on a constitutional amendment to replace the elected state K-12 Alabama State Board of Education with a new commission appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Board members are now elected from districts around the state.
“I think if you look at states that are having success in education, this is the model,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said Friday. “And that’s what we hope the people agree as well.”
Alabama is one of the few remaining states with an elected state board.
Poole, who carried the bill in the House, acknowledged how big the change would be, but said it was necessary to getting improvements in the K-12 education system.
“We are simply providing a choice to the people of Alabama through this bill and this will provide the citizens the opportunity to debate and consider that issue,” Poole said.
“The hope and the objective is that through the appointed school board, to have education subject matter experts that are crafting education policy for the state of Alabama and try to take the politics out of it.”
Rep. Louise Alexander, D-Bessemer, voted against the bill saying she believes it gives the governor too much power.
“One of the issues this session that I have a problem with is that we are taking the rights away from the citizens to vote on issues,” Alexander said.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, also voted against the bill because it requires the new commission to adopt course of study standards “in lieu of common core.”
“When this comes to the ballot, all people are going to be talking about is how you voted for this to get rid of Common Core, so no one is going to be talking about subject matter experts or about how to get the most qualified school board, they are going to say this is a way to get rid of Common Core,” England said.
“We want to say we want to get rid of politics, but we are injecting politics into getting it voted for.”
Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, was one of the Republicans that joined the Democrats in voting against the bill. He said that he didn’t feel there was enough data on how the change would improve education in the state.
“I think we are making this decision based on the fact that we are (ranked low nationally in education) and we want to do something to change, and a lot of the questions I asked, we don’t have the data for so we don’t really know if this is going to help or not,” Sorrell said.
A bill that sets up a commission to study medical marijuana and extends Carly’s Law for one more year passed the legislature went to Gov. Kay Ivey for her signature.
The bill is scaled back from the original proposal that would have legalized medical marijuana for people with about 30 medical conditions. It was approved in the Senate earlier in the session, but met opposition in the House.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, carried the bill in the House and said that he believes it is only a matter of time until the CBD oil and cannabis is legalized at the federal level.
“I think it is a matter of time before the federal government wakes up a and realizes that they have a huge federal overreach on this,” Ball said.
The 15-members of the commission will include doctors, law enforcement and an attorney and will be appointed by state officials. They’ll at least three public hearings around the state and make policy suggestions to lawmakers in December. Lawmakers could then opt to approve medical marijuana next year.
Under the original bill, medical marijuana would not be available to patients until 2021. Sponsor Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said that’s still possible in the new legislation.
The bill also extends Carly’s Law until July 1, 2020. The 2014 Carly’s Law allows the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study the cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to treat severe epileptic seizures.
Rep. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, also spoke during the floor discussion on the bill and said that she supports the bill’s ability to help sick individuals but would like to hold the commission accountable. She’d also like to know more about what studies under Carly’s Law have found.
“I would like to see added going forward a report in all of what Carly’s law has accomplished and allow this legislative body to see what they have accomplished,” Weaver said. “I would like to see how they’ve spent our money so we can see a return on investment moving forward.”
Several highly watched bills died on Friday, including one to offer better retirement benefits to new teachers. The new “Tier III” plan is more generous than what education employees have been offered since lawmakers in 2013 scaled-back retirees’ benefits.
The bill was amended in the Senate so that the new level of benefits apply only to “K-12 certificated teacher providing classroom instruction.” The bill cleared the Senate, despite opposition from Democrats who thought the benefit should be offered to state employees and some Republicans concerned about the cost. The bill died without a vote in the House.
Educators have blamed the state’s Tier II retirement benefits, including the current requirement that people wait until age 62 to begin drawing benefits, for at least part of the current teacher shortage.
Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said the state is losing young teachers to other states with better benefits.
“We’re graduating them, and then these other states are taking them away,” Hollingsworth said. “… We brought a good bill and the legislature didn’t get it through. But the problem is not going away.”
He said he does appreciate the pay raise in the education budget and legislation to allow non-certified educators to teacher up to four years.