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State budgets nearing final passage

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – More progress was made on both state budgets on Tuesday, closing in on a final vote for both during the last days of the Alabama Legislature’s 2021 regular session.

The House of Representatives passed a record $7.6 billion Education Trust Fund budget with some slight increases from the Senate-passed version. The bill now goes back to the Senate, where senators can either vote to concur with the House changes and send it to the governor or vote to form joint conference committee to work out the differences. 

House education budget chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, thanked the resiliency of Alabamians during the COVID-19 pandemic for making it possible for the budget to avoid cuts.

“There was a time a year ago as we stood in this well being very concerned about the future of education funding in Alabama and we’re very fortunate to be in the position that we are while many states are reducing their budget and struggling to pay the bills,” Poole said.

The final vote on the bill was 101-1 with the only vote against coming from Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals.

One significant increase from the current budget is $29 million more for the Department of Early Childhood Education. The State Education Department would be seeing an overall $56 million increase from the 2021 budget. 

An additional $12 million would be given to the state’s special education pre-school program and an additional $10.9 million to the career tech initiative under the House version.

In all, the budget includes about $5.3 billion for K-12 and nearly $2 billion for higher education. The House version of the budget is about $451 million more than the current year’s spending plan.

The House also approved a 2% across-the-board cost of living pay increase for K-12 and community college employees as well as a bill that creates a program to offer increased pay to middle and high school math and science teachers who meet certain qualifications. Additional money would also be available to those teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools.

The pay increases for math and science teachers will cost an estimated $100 million per year and the 2% pay raise will cost about $30 million.

Appropriations for the ETF’s Advancement and Technology fund were also approved which provides around $76 million for higher-education institutions and $206 million for K-12 schools. Those funds can go toward things like technology upgrades, school safety and debt reductions.

General Fund budget moves to Senate floor

The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund committee passed the General Fund budget on Tuesday with the hopes that it will be taken up on the Senate floor on Thursday.

General Fund budget Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, told committee members that one significant addition to the what the House passed was more requirements on reporting how funds are spent.

“I think it’s important that public monies are reported on no matter who receives them,” Albritton said.

The Senate version adds about $6.8 million more in spending, putting the budget at a record $2.4 billion.

Some notable changes between the House and Senate version are an additional $1.2 million for the Department of Commerce for one-time economic development projects. The Alabama Tourism Department would receive an additional $4 million and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs would get an additional $1.25 million in the Senate version.

The committee approved a bill providing a 2% pay raise for state employees that is traveling alongside the budget. 

Final passage of both budgets could happen Thursday.

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