State educators seek budget increase despite woes

Published 7:40 am Wednesday, January 14, 2009

MONTGOMERY — The Legislature’s annual budget hearings sound like a poor child climbing on Santa’s lap and reading a Christmas wish list several pages long. But lawmakers told educators beseeching them for increases to expect budget cuts in the coming fiscal year.

Leaders of K-12 schools, two-year colleges and four-year universities appeared before legislators Tuesday to talk about how well they have performed this year and to ask for big budget increases for next year.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton sought nearly 15 percent more than this year’s scaled-back budget. Two-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne sought about 8 percent. And a spokesman for Alabama’s four-year universities requested about 15 percent.

Legislators listening to the wish list told education leaders the national recession will require them to reduce spending for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

“You can ask for the moon if you want to, but the moon is not going to be there,” Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, told educators. “2010 is going to be a horrific year.”

Afterward, Morton said he wanted to stress the importance of programs that are improving academic performance and reducing the dropout rate, but he understands educators’ wish lists are going to remain largely wishes.

“Santa is saying what color apple do you want? You get one apple,” he said.

Education leaders are preparing to deal with something that is very rare in Alabama: back-to-back budget cuts.

Education funding peaked at $6.7 billion in fiscal 2008. The Legislature trimmed it to $6.3 billion this year, and then Gov. Bob Riley cut it to $6 billion due to the recession causing tax collections to fall below expectations.

Now the Legislature’s financial experts are predicting lawmakers will have only $5.7 billion for next year — a $1 billion drop from 2008 to 2010.

University leaders said they are looking at reducing faculty and staff, increasing class size, raising tuition, and delaying construction projects.

K-12 educators said they are looking at cutting positions and delaying buying buses, textbooks and computers.

None of the education leaders were willing to forecast a specific number of job cuts.

The Legislature wraps up budget hearings Thursday with requests from non-education agencies, including Medicaid and prisons.

Byrne, a former state senator and ally of the governor, said the budget picture will begin to take shape when the governor makes his budget recommendations to the Legislature during the first week in February.

In the current year’s education budget, legislators gave colleges and universities a much bigger cut than K-12 schools. Educators are watching to see if legislators do that again in 2010. And if they do, which programs they trim.

“In this budget environment, I don’t think we can completely say anything is off the table,” Byrne said.