Legislators explain Alabama education was not ‘robbed’ to fix general fund budget

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Following the passage and signing of Alabama's 2016 budget, the widely held opinion seems to suggest lawmakers 'took' $80 million of use taxes from schools -- like legislator stole from schools and educators, students and parents.

We spoke to a few legislators who say that's inaccurate and far more complicated than a blanket statement of, 'schools lose.'

There has been much banter about the ineffectiveness of our legislature during the budget process: 'failed attempts,' or kicking the proverbial can down the road. But despite the necessity of two special sessions, let's give some of our lawmakers a little more credit.

In the first special session, legislators passed about $46 million worth of tax revenue to go toward the education budget. They did it through tightening tax laws and cracking down on people who cheat the system or don't pay taxes.

"So I wouldn't call that special session a bust at all," said Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur.

Orr explains in the second special session lawmakers passed one bill that moves tax payment timing around, which meant $20 million for the education universe and another tax amnesty bill predicted to bring in another $15 to 20 million for education.

"So all those coming together backfilled the $80 million that was unearmarked," said Orr.

Now, on to the line we're hearing that lawmakers took education for all it's worth to fix their general fund: "Actually we need a bit more of an explanation on that," insists Rep. Mike Ball of Madison.

Ball explains the education budget is structured in such a way through the Rolling Reserve Act so that when revenues flow in, overspending can be avoided. Ball says legislator have tried to stabilize education spending. There are caps on how much can be spent each year based on a 15 year average. If revenue exceeds the spending cap it goes into the rolling reserve fund designed to prevent proration. Lawmakers haven't been able to put money in that proration prevention fund because when Republicans took over in 2010 we had already borrowed around half a billion dollars from the rainy day fund, which had to be repaid.

Rep. Ball says this year, legislators were able to get some money from the proration prevention account to help the general fund in order to avoid raising an exorbitant amount of taxes. Ball says the proration prevention fund technically resides within the education trust fund.

"But we're not taking money from classrooms," says Ball. "This is probably money that if we wanted to increase spending over there we could, but it's hard to justify -- there's still increases in spending as the economy grows -- but it's hard to justify some of the increase in spending on this side when you're in dire straights on that side."

Ball says education leadership has been very understanding of the general fund needs throughout the beleaguered budget process.

"And many of us would have been reluctant to take from classrooms but there have been a lot of discussions and like I just explained to you, it's kinda complicated and the one line, 'you're taking from children's classrooms,' is a lot easier than what I just told you."

Rep. Mike Ball says many lawmakers 'held their noses' and voted for some things they didn't like but he believes all new revenues will be available for next year as well and it's now up department heads to make wise decisions with the budget cuts they've been handed.