Last week, the largest education budget in Alabama’s history was approved by the State Senate.
The $7.67 billion Education Trust Fund budget sailed through committee and now heads to the Alabama House of Representatives for consideration.
Hip, hip, hooray! It includes $5.2 billion in K-12 funding. Another $1.9 billion will go to higher ed. All of this is for Fiscal Year 2022, which begins on October 1.
Included among the talking points disseminated through the Capitol press corps is a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, support staff and transportation workers.
“We’re putting our money where our mouths are,” State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate Education Budget Committee, declared following the unanimous vote.
Meanwhile, the dominant story out of Montgomery isn’t how we’re setting funding records for an education system we are told is woefully inadequate for Alabama’s needs.
Instead, it’s all about gambling.
If you haven’t been keeping track, State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, formerly the president pro-tem of the body, failed in his first attempt earlier this month to push a comprehensive gambling bill that would include more casino-style gaming, sports betting and a lottery.
Since then, multiple bills for the lottery only have been filed. Also, Marsh insists his legislation could make a comeback after falling just two votes shy of meeting the three-fifths vote threshold required for a constitutional amendment.
Marsh hopes to make a breakthrough on Alabama’s decades-long gambling saga, his swan song achievement before he exits the Alabama Senate in 2022. He is also likely aware the odds of a big gambling bill making it through the Legislature decrease significantly after 2021.
If you were only watching what’s going on in the Alabama House and nothing else, you’d probably be unaware gambling is the hot-button topic du jour.
Leadership in the Alabama House will tell you they are keeping an eye on it, but hint toward a special session later in 2021. That would be in addition to a special session for reapportionment, delayed by late-arriving census data due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps Gov. Kay Ivey would call a special session for gambling. She seems to be keen on legacy, and an agreement on lottery and gambling would be an achievement to go alongside prisons and infrastructure.
It would also give her a seat at the table in negotiating the terms of gambling. Unlike legislation passed in the constitutionally mandated annual regular session, the governor sets the agenda for a special session, which means she would get to define the terms of what the Alabama Legislature would consider as it pertains to gambling.
Why are we spending so much time on gambling? Why does it seem every conversation about Goat Hill takes you to the gambling issue?
Well, it is for the children, of course!
Every effort to legalize some form of gambling in Alabama since the fall of the Dixie Mafia in Phenix City has been done in the name of education.
Gambling might be immoral or unethical, but it’s OK if the proceeds are for the children, right?
Rural broadband, scholarships, mental health and rural health care are among the programs Marsh’s on-again, off-again proposal would fund.
Those are all worthy goals. However, didn’t we just break a record for an education budget?
The Legislature had a little more breathing room for the budgeting process, given Alabama’s tax receipts did not suffer the effects of the pandemic downturn like other states.
Thus, Republican lawmakers can tout the record-breaking education spending, which at face value seems out of character.
“Look at all this growth of government in the name of education! Oh yeah, and if we get more money because of gambling, we can grow government even more!”
When incumbent Republicans run for reelection, they’ll have at least one significant tax increase to answer for, which is the state gasoline tax hike in the 2019 Rebuild Alabama Act.
There is no tax offset. Sure, there was some discussion of a grocery tax offset (Alabama remains one of the few states that taxes food). However, once the Legislature passed the gas tax and those “Rebuild Alabama Act” road construction signs started springing up around the state, the offset discussion went away.
If gas prices should go up because of Biden administration policies and Congress’s successful push to increase the federal gasoline tax, Republicans at home will have to answer for a vote they took in 2019.
Voters will be looking around, maybe asking why they didn’t use lottery money to fund infrastructure instead.
See what a mess this could become?
Here’s what we know: There seems to be enough money for education as the state continues to pass “record” education budgets.
We are also told the state would get even more money for education from gambling.
At what point should taxpayers expect some of this money back? Could we at least look at some form of a tax cut in Montgomery? There is a Republican supermajority.
How much money going to Montgomery is enough? Discipline in the budgeting process is a noble achievement, but it doesn’t really mean much if the point is to increase the size and scope of government.
How about giving some of that money back to taxpayers?
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