Friday, June 10, 2011

Alabama lawmakers pass budgets, voter photo ID bill on final day of session

Legislature Kay Ivey 6-09.JPGLt. Gov. Kay Ivey presides over the state Senate on the final day of the legislative session Thursday.

MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- State lawmakers approved next year's state budgets and a plan to make more than 130,000 public employees pay more for pension coverage, among many bills passed Thursday, the last day in this year's regular session of the Legislature.
Lawmakers also passed a bill that would let state voters revise the state constitution to say Alabamians could opt out of the federal health care overhaul law passed last year.
Lawmakers also passed a bill to make Alabamians show photo identification at the polls before voting.
"I think we've done a tremendous job," said state Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, who chairs the committee in the House of Representatives that drafted the education budget.
The education budget that lawmakers passed for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, will spend along with related appropriation bills a total of $5.59 billion from the Education Trust Fund, an increase of $240.7 million, 4.5 percent, from this year.
That increase will be dwarfed by the loss of as much as $462.5 million in federal stimulus money that supplemented trust fund spending this year but will be gone next year.
The budget will pay for 1,125 fewer teacher positions at public schools next year. For comparison, public schools in the 2010-11 academic year employed 47,573 teachers.
The budget does not have money for cost-of-living raises next year.
Lawmakers passed the budget in May, but Gov. Robert Bentley last week sent it back and requested a change that would have adjusted the budget if a bill to make teachers and other public educators pay more for pension coverage were to die. But the Senate gave that bill final legislative approval Thursday, so Bentley's amendment wasn't needed. The House voted 95-1 to reject Bentley's change and then the Senate voted 22-9 to reject it, passing the bill into law.
Under the budget, Education Trust Fund spending next year would total:
--- $3.62 billion, an increase of $174.6 million, 5.1 percent, for the foundation program, the main source of state money for classroom instruction and transportation for public schools for kindergarten through 12th grade.
--- $1.04 billion, an increase of $51.4 million, 5.2 percent, for public universities.
--- $320.1 million, a decrease of $1.9 million, 0.6 percent, for the public two-year college system.
"It's a good budget in a tough year," said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, who chairs the Senate committee that drafted the education budget.
He said he doubted many people would be laid off next year because of the budget, since in a typical year more than 1,125 teachers retire or otherwise leave public schools. The loss of 1,125 teaching positions should be made up mainly by not replacing teachers who leave, not by laying off teachers, Pittman and others said.
But Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association teachers' lobby, said he was disappointed by the budget.
"We cut 1,125 teachers. That's going to make class sizes larger next year," he said.
Hubbert noted that lawmakers balanced the budget in part by making teachers and other public education employees pay more for their pension coverage, generating roughly $80 million for next year's education budget.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 414, which if signed into law by Bentley will make employees of public schools, two-year colleges and universities and employees of non-education state agencies pay an extra 2.5 percent of their paychecks for pension coverage.
Most teachers and other employees covered by the state's Teachers' Retirement System or Employees' Retirement System now contribute 5 percent of their paychecks for pension coverage. That percentage under the bill would rise to 7.25 percent starting Oct. 1 and to 7.5 percent starting Oct. 1, 2012.

Operating budget

Lawmakers also gave their final approval to next year's operating budget for Alabama's courts and non-education agencies, which along with related spending bills would spend $1.77 billion from the state General Fund in fiscal 2012, an increase of $181.1 million, 11.4 percent, from this year. The General Fund is a major source of state money for Medicaid, prisons and other areas of state government.
Next year, $235 million in federal stimulus money that supplemented General Fund spending this year won't be available, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office, a loss greater than next year's proposed increase in General Fund money.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, warned that there could be hundreds of layoffs next year under the operating budget, in part because of the reduction in federal stimulus money.
"It could lead to significant layoffs in various departments across state government. Hundreds," said Orr, who chairs the Senate committee that drafted the operating budget.
"It's the best we could do, given the funds we had, the loss of stimulus and increased costs in Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income and disabled Alabamians."
The budget has no money for cost-of-living raises next year.
The budget counts on a $263 million windfall from the Alabama Trust Fund to boost General Fund revenues next year. The windfall stems from a ruling by the attorney general's office that the trust fund board over several years miscalculated and under-funded past revenue transfers made from the trust fund to the General Fund.
The budget's General Fund also counts on getting $75 million in capital gains next year from the Alabama Trust Fund, which has about $2.5 billion in assets. The Alabama Trust Fund collects most of the royalties paid the state by companies that pump natural gas from offshore. Neither of those windfalls is absolutely guaranteed.
Lawmakers passed the operating budget in May, but Bentley sent it back with suggested changes. The House of Representatives on Thursday voted 83-15 to go along with the changes. The Senate last week voted 30-1 to go along with them.
The operating budget will become law only if Bentley signs it. State Finance Director David Perry said he expects Bentley to do so.
Other bills passed
--- House Bill 60, which would let voters decide whether to rewrite Alabama's constitution to say that people and employers in Alabama could opt out of the federal health care overhaul passed by Congress last year. The Senate voted 24-9 for the plan, which passed the House in April. Voters will decide in November 2012 whether to rewrite Alabama's constitution to say a law or rule shall not compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer or health care provider to participate in any health care system. The amendment, if approved by voters, could be used to challenge in federal court the health care overhaul law if for some reason other lawsuits already in federal courts don't settle the issue.
--- House Bill 19, which starting in 2014 would make Alabamians show photo identification at the polls before voting, with some exceptions. The Senate voted 22-10 for the plan, which the House approved in March. The bill will become law if Bentley signs it.
A photo ID could include an Alabama driver's license, a non-driver ID card issued by a state or county agency, a military ID or a U.S. passport, among other options.
A registered voter without such an ID could apply to the Alabama Secretary of State's office for a free Alabama photo voter ID card that also would be accepted at the polls.
Under the bill, someone without a photo ID still could vote if two election officials signed an affidavit identifying the person as an eligible voter. Someone without a photo ID also could cast a provisional ballot, which would be counted if the person presented photo ID of himself or herself to the county registrar's office within a few days of the election.
Alabama voters for years have been required to show identification at the polls, but many forms of non-photo IDs are allowed, such as a current utility bill, a Social Security card or a copy of a birth certificate.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 18, which would ban anyone from performing an abortion on someone pregnant for 20 or more weeks, unless an abortion was needed to avoid the woman's death or serious risk of substantial bodily harm. It will become law if signed by Bentley. It would take effect Sept. 1.
Lawmakers did not pass Senate Bill 301, which in effect would impose a state ban on abortion. The bill says the term "persons" as used in state laws shall include "any human being from the moment of fertilization and implantation into the womb."

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