In the last few years the state has had to tighten its belt to rein in spending during some lean budget years. Alabama’s teachers have had to shoulder some of that burden with pay cuts and increased contributions to their pensions. Teachers received a two percent pay raise last year, their first since 2007. More raises were expected this year to help bring teacher pay back to pre-recession levels. Governor Robert Bentley took up the cause during his State of the State address...
“I truly appreciate the sacrifices our teachers have made. Last year teachers received a two percent pay raise. This year I’m proposing another two percent increase four our teachers and support personnel.”
Once the issue was taken up in the legislature, it looked like nobody could agree on how much the raise should be. A two percent raise turned to one percent and by the time the Governor signed the education budget there was no pay raise at all. Needless to say that rubbed some people the wrong way.
“Well we were deeply disappointed in the fact that Governor Bentley didn’t keep his promise to include at least a two percent pay raise for education employees,” says the Alabama Education Association’s Amy Marlowe. “It marks now the seventh year that educators across the state have not received any kind of pay adjustment. Last year they were given a two percent cost of living adjustment to help make up for the two and a half percent pay cut that they’ve suffered the previous two years.”
Marlowe says teachers are worse off now than they were before Republicans took over in 2010. However, the budget provided 64 million dollars to help close a projected shortfall next year in PEEHIP. That's short for the Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan. This prevented teachers from having to pay more for their health coverage. Representative Bill Poole is Chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Committee. He says while under the Proration Prevention Act they had an extra 135 million dollars for education, the money just wasn’t there for pay raises.
“A two percent raise would cost the state approximately 80 million dollars so if you add a two percent raise plus that PEEHIP contribution that would exceed the amount that we had available to appropriate,” says Poole. “Not to mention we would not have had any dollars going towards classrooms, textbooks, technologies, students… the very reasons our schools exist.”
Poole says, after conversations with education employees and teachers, when it came time to make a choice between insurance or pay raises the decision was clear.
“The priority of those two would be to protect them from increased health insurance costs and so we did that. We did it fully and we did it responsibly. We’d like to be able to do raises as well but we just simply didn’t have the money and we found ourselves in an either or situation and that’s what we heard from our education community was that health insurance was the priority.”
“They tried to scare teachers with that tactic by saying we're giving you your PEEHIP or fully funding PEEHIP,” says Alabama House Minority Leader Craig Ford. “There's such a reserve in the PEEHIP that they were going to cover it no matter what the legislature did so they're continuing to try and scare tactic educators in the state.”
Ford says there was never any intended purpose for educators getting a pay raise and all the Governor's promises amount to is political rhetoric.
“I just think it’s an election year and it’s the same thing they did with the state employee,” says Ford. “He touted he was going to give them a four percent pay raise in the state of the state address and it was never even addressed in the budget process or committee process and he knew the money wasn’t going to be in there to begin with.”
Both Ford and the AEA think there was enough money to provide health coverage and a pay raise, but Bill Poole says the math didn’t add up for the members of the state legislature. So who is right? Well that depends on who you ask.
“Oh it's just a difference of philosophy,” says Governor Bentley. “I believe that we'll have more money than what some of the people in the legislature feel and sometimes it's just philosophical.”
Governor Bentley and most of the state house and senate are republican. That supermajority didn't help find a compromise on the raise issue. Bentley signed the budget without the raises. The issue of higher teacher pay could be revisited in a special session in the fall. It could even wait until the 2015 legislative session. Craig Ford thinks that may be too late and Republicans could pay the price at the ballot box.
“I think a lot of educators voted a different way in 2010 and I don't think they'll make that mistake a second time,” says Ford. “I think they realize, I had an educator tell me the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. So I think it will cost them some seats in the house and the senate and it could cost them the majority in one of the chambers.”
That could be clever forecasting or just wishful thinking but we won't know for sure until November.