AP Survey: House, Senate differ on school cuts

Published 2:28 pm Saturday, January 24, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Alabama legislators expect to make deep cuts in education spending for the next school year, but an Associated Press survey of lawmakers found sharp differences between the House and Senate about how to do it.

In the House, the largest group favors cutting K-12 schools less than two-year colleges and four-year universities.

In the Senate, the largest group supports reducing all levels of education equally.

“Fairness, fairness, fairness” has become the mantra of Gordon Stone, executive director of the Alabama Higher Education Partnership lobbying group.

But Rep. Richard Lindsey, chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee, said there will be lively debate because higher education has funding alternatives, such as tuition increases, that aren’t available to K-12 schools.

Alabama’s education budget peaked at $6.7 billion in fiscal 2008. The Legislature cut the budget to $6.3 billion this year, but final spending will likely fall to $6 billion due to the recession.

When the Legislature convenes Feb. 3, fiscal experts predict lawmakers will only have $5.7 billion to spend on the education budget for 2010 — an unprecedented $1 billion freefall from 2008 to 2010.

When writing this year’s budget, the Legislature and Gov. Bob Riley agreed to cut K-12 schools about 3 percent from 2008, two-year colleges 8 percent, and four-year universities 11 percent. They said they wanted to spare K-12 programs that are improving academic performance.

The Associated Press surveyed 70 percent of the House and 94 percent the Senate about how to approach the budget in the legislative session starting Feb. 3.

In the House, 41 percent of those responding said they would like to make the smallest cuts in K-12 schools again in 2010. Only 13 percent feel the same way in the Senate, where universities traditionally have a stronger lobbying impact.

In the Senate, 50 percent favor equal cuts for all segments of education, compared to 30 percent of the House members responding.

Three percent in the House and 3 percent in the Senate want to do the reverse of what happened this year. They want to give smaller cuts to higher ed and bigger cuts to K-12 for 2010.

Twenty-three percent of the House and 27 percent of the Senate were undecided.

And 3 percent of the House and 7 percent of the Senate suggested another approach.

That includes the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee.

“Let’s go program-by-program and look at what will hurt education the least,” Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton knows what to expect when the Legislature returns to work on the budget.

“There are going to be cuts. There is no question about that,” he said.

The question, he said, is which segment of education will take the biggest cuts.

The Legislature has until the end of its session in mid-May to answer that question.