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State schools, colleges could see $1B in cuts

MONTGOMERY — Alabama public schools and college face $1 billion in budget cuts this year and next, a remarkable setback after receiving a record $6.7 billion in 2008.

Joyce Bigbee, director of the Legislative Fiscal Office, broke the news to lawmakers on Monday, the first day of their annual budget hearings.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton and legislators said the reduction likely means fewer teachers in public schools, delays in purchasing textbooks and computers, and higher tuition for college students for the fiscal year that starts Oct 1.

Alabama’s public education appropriations peaked at $6.7 billion in fiscal 2008. For fiscal 2009, the Legislature passed a $6.39 billion budget. But then the state’s tax collections fell below expectations, and Gov. Bob Riley has already trimmed spending to about $6 billion.

On Monday, Bigbee told legislators to expect about $5.7 billion for the education budget in fiscal 2010.

“That’s a $1 billion reduction from the level of appropriations in 2008,” she said.

The chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee said the drop is unprecedented.

“It means making cuts like we’ve never seen before,” Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, said.

Bigbee’s forecast was equally bad for the budget that finances non-education agencies, including Medicaid, state troopers and prisons.

She said the governor has already had to trim this year’s $2 billion General Fund budget to $1.8 billion due to the recession, and next year’s budget could fall to $1.4 billion.

For state agencies, that would be like a return to 2005, when the budget was also $1.4 billion.

Sen. Roger Bedford, a Russellville Democrat who leads the Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee, said he expects the current state hiring freeze to be extended in 2010. That means less government services because mental health workers, social workers and state troopers won’t be replaced when they retire or quit, he said.

Gov. Bob Riley will present his revenue forecast and budget recommendations to the Legislature during the first week in February.

Riley’s assistant state fiance director, Bill Newton, told legislators Monday that it is hard to forecast because Congress is working on an economic recovery package that could improve the state’s financial picture. It all depends on whether the package provides more funding for Medicaid, construction funds for roads and schools, and help in paying state unemployment benefits.

Some legislative leaders have suggested shoring up the budgets by levying a state tax on the thousands of electronic bingo machines in the state.

Rep. John Knight, chairman of the House Government Appropriations Committee, likes the idea, but said the governor’s opposition will make that difficult.

“If you don’t have the support from the administration, I don’t think it is going to pass,” he said.

The Legislature is scheduled to complete writing the fiscal 2010 budgets by mid-May.