State Legislature approves budgets, pay raises
By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer
MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Legislature approved both state budgets and pay raises public employees on Tuesday, a whirlwind day that likely prevented a summer special session to finance state government.
The Senate voted unanimously for House-passed pay raise bills that now go to Gov. Bob Riley, who will sign them into law, press secretary Tara Hutchison said.
Education employees will get a 7 percent boost on Oct. 1, while state workers will receive 3.5 percent on Oct. 1 and another 3.5 percent a year later. It will mark the third consecutive pay increase for public employees.
The bills given final approval by the Senate also provide retired education employees and state workers with a pension bonus of $1 per month for each year of service. For a person who worked 25 years, the bonus will be $300.
The Senate voted 33-0 for a record $6.7 billion education budget that will provide a nearly 12 percent increase for K-12 schools and two-year colleges and 15 percent for universities. The budget was slightly different from one that passed the House earlier. But the House approved the Senate's changes 91-3 Tuesday evening and sent the budget to the governor for review.
When the legislative session began in March, Riley emphasized his desire to expand distance learning programs that allow a teacher in one location to teach classes in several schools. The Senate-passed budget would double the funding for distance learning programs in public schools to $20 million, but that's $5 million short of what Riley sought.
The budget would also increase the budget for the state's Math, Science and Technology Initiative by two-thirds, from $22 million to $35.8 million, which is slightly more than Riley sought.
The Senate voted 28-4 for a $1.8 billion General Fund budget that would finance non-education agencies for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The budget then went to the House, which had passed a slightly different version earlier in the session. The House approved the Senate's changes 84-19 and sent the budget on to the governor.
Similar to Riley's plans
Riley's communications director, Jeff Emerson, said both budgets "are very similar to what the governor submitted" to the Legislature in March, but he will have to study them closely before deciding whether to sign them.
The Senate version of the General Fund budget spent $5 million more than the original House version, mostly to finance festivals, museums and other projects favored by legislators.
The appropriations added by the Senate included $10,000 for UFO Days in Fyffe, $10,000 for Fort Payne Boom Days, and $15,000 for the Henagar Potato Festival.
Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, guided the budget through the Senate and defended the appropriations.
"These are legitimate projects that generate tourism dollars for the areas," Bedford said.
In the House, Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, criticized the Senate for adding the projects after weeks of not considering other bills.
"I think it's really unfair to let the Senate do nothing and then come in here and put in this money for their own personal projects," Warren said. But a majority of the House did not agree.
The new budget adds $1 million for the state Department of Human Resources to increase payments to families caring for foster children, $70 million to maintain Medicaid benefits without cutbacks, and $300,000 for two new centers at the state agriculture department that will promote alternative fuels and rural development.
Little time wasted
Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, cast one of the votes against the budget because he said he only had about 90 minutes to review the revised version offered by Bedford, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee.
Members of the Senate's Minority Caucus spent much of the legislative session using stalling tactics to slow down action to protest Senate operating rules they consider unfair and to protest their lack of involvement in shaping the budgets. But on Tuesday, they made no effort to slow down the budgets or pay raises.
Waggoner said the 17-member minority lacked the numbers to stop the 18-member Democratic Majority from pushing through the budgets in the closing days of the session.
"In Montgomery, Alabama, it's a game of numbers and those with the most numbers win," Waggoner said.
With work on the state budgets completed, legislative leaders voiced optimism Tuesday that there will be no need for a summer special session to deal with the budgets. A special session had been highly likely just a few days ago because of the Senate slowdown.
Two meeting days remain the session. Still to be decided is a school construction bond issued that was approved by the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee on Tuesday. Senate education budget committee Chairman Hank San-ders, D-Selma, said it could come up for a vote in the Senate on Thursday, which will be the next-to-last meeting day.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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