Bentley cuts state school budgets by 3 percent

Published 12:23 am Tuesday, March 1, 2011

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley ordered an across-the-board cut of 3 percent in the state education budget Monday and announced that he will cut most agencies in the state General Fund budget 15 percent after working with the Legislature to protect some essential services.

Bentley, who was a member of the Legislature when both budgets were written, said the documents were based on unreliable revenue projections.

“Now five months into the 2011 fiscal year, it is clear there is not enough revenue to sustain either budget,” the Republican governor said.

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Bentley said the $5.5 billion education budget has a $165 million shortfall. It marks the third consecutive year that the governor has had to cut funding for public schools and colleges due to appropriations exceeding tax collections.

Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said state education officials had warned city and county school boards months ago to expect a budget cut, and most have been trying to save money in anticipation of not getting their full state appropriation. He said that should make the impact of the cut less visible to students and parents.

“It’s not a surprise on anyone’s part,” he said.

Hubbert said there are signs Alabama’s economy is improving and he is hopeful Bentley can soon reduce the cut to 1 percent in a couple of months “if the gas prices don’t wreck the economy.”

The forecast is worse for the $1.68 billion General Fund budget for non-education agencies, which Bentley said is $110 million short.

Instead of ordering immediate cuts across the board in that budget, Bentley said he will work with the Legislature to protect critical services from the 15 percent cuts that will have to be made in most state agencies. In an interview Friday, Bentley said he wants to protect Medicaid, prisons, pardons and paroles, and the Ethics Commission from big cuts.

State Health Officer Don Williamson said, “The numbers don’t surprise me.” But he said state agency directors are waiting to see what Bentley and the Legislature determine are essential services.

Depending on what is not protected, Williamson said the state Department of Public Health could end up serving fewer children with the All-Kids insurance program and cutting back on the AIDS drug assistance program and restaurant inspections.

This will be the second consecutive year for cuts in the General Fund budget, but the cuts don’t affect all agencies equally. State agencies are expected to spend more than $14 billion this year. Some of them, such as the Department of Transportation, get nearly all their money from state taxes set aside for specific projects, such as highway construction, and from the federal government. Others, such as the Department of Corrections, rely largely on appropriations from the General Fund budget.

Bentley’s proration announcement came one day before the new Republican-controlled Legislature convenes to begin work on budgets for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.