Despite Fiscal Straits, Riley Seeks Aid Hikes
Gov. Bob Riley is calling on Alabama legislators to enact governmentwide “accountability and reform” measures that would include changes in teacher tenure and school financial matters.
In his recent State of the State Address, Gov. Riley also promised to spend more money on several K-12 priorities, including an additional $87 million on textbooks, classroom supplies, and teacher training. He also said he wanted to expand the Alabama Reading Initiative to cover all classrooms statewide from kindergarten through grade 3.
The budget request he submitted to the legislature Feb. 5 would raise spending on elementary and secondary education by about $180 million, or 6 percent, over the current level to $3.2 billion.
At the same time, Mr. Riley warned that teachers and other state employees would have to pay more for health and retirement benefits in the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, as the costs in those areas are expected to rise substantially.
“We now have two choices: massive layoffs or adjust benefits,” he said. “I will do everything in my power to avoid losing thousands of teachers and state employees.”
The first-term Republican governor has been forced to scale back dramatically his spending agenda after voters last September rejected his plan to rewrite the state tax code and raise an extra $1.2 billion a year for schools and other social programs. (“Alabama Voters Reject Gov. Riley’s Tax Plan,” Sept. 17, 2003.) The package turned down by voters also contained accountability measures for state government and education. Mr. Riley now wants to address those government-reform proposals in a special session, which he has urged the lawmakers to call, even while he has firmly ruled out any significant tax increases.
“Alabamians have an abiding faith in God, their families, and their communities,” he said in his State of the State speech, delivered Feb. 3. “They do not, however, have faith in their state government. Ladies and gentlemen, we must change that starting tonight.”
Mr. Riley also identified several areas of education spending he wants to enhance, including the state reading program.
“I am proposing that we expand and focus the Alabama Reading Initiative to all K through 3 classrooms in the state,” he said. “It’s time every child in Alabama learns to read.”
He also wants to ratchet up spending on textbooks, classroom supplies, and teacher training, which took a big budget hit last year because of a funding shortfall.
But the Alabama Education Association, the state teachers’ union, wasn’t impressed with Mr. Riley’s budget plan.
“Governor Riley doesn’t have a plan, but instead a jumbled patchwork of a budget that underfunds Medicaid and health care for our seniors and our children,” the group said in a statement. “One year ago, he pledged not to let bad things happen to Alabama. He is not only letting bad things happen, he is leading the charge.”
But Mr. Riley has made clear, especially given the overwhelming rejection of his tax and spending plan last September, that there just isn’t enough money to do everything he would like.
“Let me say to our teachers and state employees, thank you for your hard work under very trying circumstances,” the governor said. “These choices are not punitive and those who tell you they are, are not telling the truth.”
—Erik W. Robelen
School Finance Revamp
Is a Pawlenty Priority
Heartened by the headway made on last year’s massive budget deficit, Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his 2003 State of the State Address to describe how he plans to restore Minnesota to greatness.
A year ago, Mr. Pawlenty, a Republican who had just taken office, faced the legislature with the news that the state was $4.5 billion in the hole. Now, he said in his Feb. 5 update, “we have reason to be optimistic” because the government has erased roughly $4 billion of that deficit and built reserves of $600 million.
Despite the past year’s budget problems, the governor gave his administration a pat on the back for enacting new educational standards and sparing per-pupil education spending from the cuts that affected other budget areas.
Still, he said, “for decades, Minnesota was a hotbed of education innovation, and we need to get back our edge.”
The first item on the governor’s education agenda is to revamp education finance—a goal of the previous governor, Jesse Ventura, an Independent who shifted much of the cost of K-12 education from localities to the state. Mr. Pawlenty, however, appears to want to dramatically alter the state’s traditional per-pupil funding formula.
“With standards, we know what children should learn, and we can figure out how much that should cost,” he said. “The current [funding] formula is an artifact of history and political tweaking. It’s reliance on only a per- pupil funding approach too dramatically impacts districts with declining enrollment. We can do better.”
A task force on school finance that he appointed last year is expected to release its recommendations soon on overhauling the system, the governor said.
Mr. Pawlenty also referred to initiatives he announced last fall, including a plan to pay exceptional teachers up to $100,000 a year.
—Darcia Harris Bowman
Newly Elected Barbour
Wants Better Schools
Education is the key to helping Mississippi solve its economic woes, Gov. Haley Barbour said in his first State of the State Address.
The Republican, who defeated incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in November, called job creation his immediate priority.
But he added that he also shares the legislature’s top funding priority of education. He backed the fourth installment of a six-year teacher-pay increase that could raise average salaries in the state to $41,000 by 2006.
Gov. Barbour, in his Jan. 26 speech, also proposed to work on teacher recruitment by reducing retirement incentives for experienced teachers and by expanding incentives for teachers who work in poor areas to out-of-state teacher-candidates as well.
Mr. Barbour said the state’s charter school law must be changed to allow for more innovation. Mississippi has only one charter school.
He said he expects more from schools—without higher taxes and with strong accountability. “I’m willing to step up and support our education system, but I will be watching to make sure that support yields positive results for Mississippi’s children,” he said.
Governor: Tap Surplus
To Raise Facility Funds
An estimated $1.2 billion surplus in Wyoming’s state coffers should pay for a backlog of school and prison construction plans, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Feb. 9 in his second State of the State Address.
The governor’s budget request for the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years recommends appropriating $380.3 million for the state’s school capital construction account.
That amount, when combined with estimated income from the school construction account through fiscal 2009, would pay for the estimated $705.1 million in total capital construction costs for K-12 buildings, he stated in his budget request.
But the Democratic governor also cautioned lawmakers on the eve of a 20-day budget session to be fiscally cautious and not add extra projects or costs to existing construction plans. Wyoming meets for regular sessions only in odd-numbered years.
“The problem with sudden spikes in revenue is that they can blur our vision,” Gov. Freudenthal said. “Let us stay the course. This is not the time for us to engage in fancy riding and trick- roping.”
A surge in mineral revenues, thanks to increased gas and utility prices in the national energy sector, largely accounted for Wyoming’s windfall.
Continuing on a cautious note, Mr. Fruedenthal recommended that $230 million of the estimated surplus go into reserve funds. In addition, he reminded legislators to make strategic investments in Wyoming’s future, without raising taxes.
“We cannot simply sit back and say that the economy will take care of itself because state government has a spike in revenues,” he said. “If we care about the children that we speak of so dearly ... we can exhibit that concern through investing today in the state—in our economy, in our education system, and in our communities.”
—Rhea R. Borja