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Alabama's 'Pork Barrel' Contains Money for Schools

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Like any well-brought-up person, Nelson Ellis, the principal of Fyffe (Ala.) High School, knew just what to do when his school received the gift of a new gymnasium--write a thank-you note to the people who provided it.

But while funding for the gym, football-field lights, and a variety of other equipment in recent years ultimately came from the taxpayers of Alabama, Mr. Ellis's expressions of gratitude have been directed to the local members of the legislature, Senator Lowell R. Barron and Representative Ralph Burke.

Senator Barron and Representative Burke were able to offer such largess to the 900-student K-12 school through an unusual state program that provides each lawmaker a substantial chunk of money to hand out at his or her discretion to constituent schools.

The program, funded at $14 million this year, has no control over which schools politicians bless with the money and very little over how it is spent at the schools.

Over the years, the so-called "pork barrel" spending has helped schools carpet classroom floors, purchase video equipment, and obtain many other things they would not have been able to afford with just local revenues and regular state aid. And, presumably, the legislators that supplied them have reaped their own rewards from grateful constituents.

Mr. Barron, deputy chairman of the Senate finance committee, calls such state spending "the fuel that drives the engine of democracy."

But a growing number of voices in the state are attacking the program as political spoils unequally bestowed by powerful lawmakers, as well as an unwise use of resources at a time when state education aid is being cut across the board.

An advisory committee on education issues appointed by Gov. Guy Hunt criticized the program this month, recommending that pork-barrel projects be eliminated from the legislative process.

The money should "not be doled out piecemeal," said Terry Abbott, a spokesman for Governor Hunt.

Meanwhile, at least one legislator who has himself participated in the process has taken legal action against it.

Senator Mac Parsons last month filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court charging that the method by which the pork-barrel money is appropriated violates the Alabama constitution's provision against ''logrolling," or approval of a bill simply because each legislator has a political stake in its passage.

Mr. Parsons hopes that the lawsuit will prompt the money to be wrapped into the main education-appropriations bill, thus becoming part of the money that is available to schools throughout the state.

Education funding ought to be handled by educators who have a coherent plan for spending money--not by politicians "acting like drunken sailors with a checkbook," said Mr. Parsons, who is optimistic about his chances of winning the suit.

This is not the first time Mr. Parsons has taken legal action against pork-barrel practices.

About four years ago, Mr. Parsons requested an opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court on the consti4tutionality of the system.

The court ruled that only one bill--the state budget--can be exempted from the constitutional provision limiting each piece of legislation to just one topic.

In order to comply with the court ruling, Mr. Barron explained, the House and Senate each began placing education pork in one large "special appropriations" bill for education projects. That has been the case for the past two years.

State officials had until the end of last week to respond to Mr. Parsons' recent suit.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 15, temporarily held up the special appropriations that are to go out to schools this year, said Charles Rowe, a state budget officer. The state had already paid out the first installment of the funds in November, but held the February payment pending a review of the suit, he said.

But until a judge rules on the suit, Mr. Rowe said, the money will continue to flow normally.

And flow it does. During this school year, about 75 percent of the 83 day schools and 17 adult evening programs in the Birmingham school district are to divide about $558,000 in pork funding, according to the district's finance director, Jack Marshall. Last year, about 50 percent to 60 percent of the district's schools split $465,695.

The money is not distributed equally even among the ones that do receive it, Mr. Marshall noted. Some schools may get as much as $10,000 to $12,000 in one year, while others only $500 or $1,000.

Gaston School in Birmingham, which has 750 K-8 students, is one of those set to receive about $10,000, courtesy of its legislator, Representative E.B. McClain.

Past contributions have not been so large, said the school's principal, Earl S. Wilson. In the past two years the school received at least $2,000, he said--enough to buy televisions and videocassette recorders. While Gaston was wired for educational-cable programming, "We didn't have enough TV's," Mr. Wilson said.

Without the pork-barrel funding, the school would not have been able to afford the equipment, Mr. Wilson said. "It's been helpful to us," he said. "Very helpful."

Gaston officials are planning to buy personal computers with the $10,000 that is expected this year, and Mr. Wilson would "of course" like to see the money continue to come in.

Principal Ellis of Fyffe High School is also very familiar with that flow of pork funding.

In March 1990 alone, Mr. Ellis said, the school spent pork money totaling $13,500--nearly $5,000 for 10 typewriters for its typing class and $8,500 for the football-field lighting.

According to Mr. Barron and Mr. Ellis, the school tries to match its gift from the state through fund raising, which it did for the football lighting and video equipment for the football team.

About 3 years ago, Fyffe received about $40,000 in pork money to build a badly needed gym for the elementary grades. The facility is worth three or four times that now, Mr. Ellis said, adding that most of the construction labor was donated.

Without the school's special appropriation, Mr. Ellis said, "There's one thing for sure--we would not have this elementary gymnasium."

Items obtained under the pork-barrel program are "necessities," he argued. The football-team video equipment, for example, is saving the district about $2,000 a year in film and developing costs.

Mr. Ellis said it has been more difficult in recent years for the school to raise private money for such spending because of problems in the local economy. It is difficult, he said, to obtain contributions from people who have lost jobs at nearby plants.

For many reasons--including the grateful smiles on the faces of cash-starved local principals--curtailing the flow of pork-barrel money for education in any way may prove difficult, Mr. Barron predicted.

Mr. Barron estimates that he has contributed "several million dollars" to constituent schools during his nine years in the Senate.

"The process of putting pork in ... will never be stopped in this country because that's a basic human instinct--to help other people," he said.

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