Tuesday, May 28, 2024

In the Alabama Legislature, it’s culture wars first, retirees second

  As lawmakers locked in $12 billion in spending late in the recently-concluded legislative session, they discovered education retirees.

  These are the teachers and support staff who spent 20 or 30 years or more educating you and your children. They ensured the kids in their charge were fed, sheltered, and taught as best as local resources allowed.

  They haven’t seen a cost-of-living increase in their benefits since 2007.

  There’s a reason for that: it’s expensive. A 1% increase for retirees would cost the Education Trust Fund (ETF) about $200 million. For comparison, the University of South Alabama, with about 14,000 students, will get $161.4 million from the budget next year.

  To get around this, the legislature in 2021 created a trust fund for retirees. It won’t provide a COLA. Instead, it will pay retirees bonuses.

  But legislators will decide each year whether bonuses are paid. Nothing will come out of the trust fund until it contains $100 million. And lawmakers can’t fill it with ETF money.

  So in the dusk of the 2024 session, the Senate used a supplemental spending bill to put $5 million into the fund. The House stripped it out.

  Senators weren’t happy.

  “Next year, the education budget is going to start out in this chamber, and you can bet your bottom dollar we’re going to have a deposit into that retiree trust fund for our retired state educators,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, (R-Decatur), the chair of the Senate’s education budget committee.

  Orr’s House counterpart, Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), later noted that $5 million wouldn’t come close to addressing the retirees’ needs. The House, he said, put the money where it could have a more immediate impact.

  “I’m sympathetic,” he said. “I’m trying to be practical to tell you that the solution that was put in the supplemental did not address or come anywhere near addressing the problem.”

  It’s hard not to be sympathetic to retirees. And it’s not easy to shift money around in our heavily-earmarked tax system.

  But if lawmakers cared about this issue, couldn’t they have worked on it at the start of the session?

  Instead of all the terrible legislation they rushed through those first few weeks?

  Like SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman), which criminalized certain forms of assistance with absentee ballots. The law itself is bad enough, but supporters justified it by pointing to mostly poor, mostly rural, and mostly Black counties having higher-than-average use of absentee ballots. Which is not a crime, and could reflect a larger number of sick or elderly people, two groups that can cross the state’s high bar for voting absentee.

  Or SB 129, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road), which banned public funding of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. It also gave the most brittle among us the power to subject educators to professional harassment for teaching accurate history.

  Or HB 129, sponsored by Garrett. When fully implemented, that will siphon at least $100 million out of the ETF to dole out tax credits for nonpublic education purposes (including private school tuition).

  Notice that $100 million is what you need to start paying bonuses to retirees? I do. $100 million also gets you halfway to a small retiree COLA, or a 2% pay raise for current education employees (on top of what lawmakers approved this year).

  Instead, those taxpayer dollars will flow out of the ETF and into private entities. After 2027, there’s no means-testing for the tax credits. In the eyes of the law, a family that can spend almost $30,000 a year at Indian Springs School or $25,000 a year at Randolph School in Huntsville is just as needy as a kid in a Black Belt district struggling to attract teachers. We’re taking money from public schools that need the help and giving it to private schools that don’t.

  I could go on. The legislature approved a bill forcing employers to prolong labor strife. They passed a tinfoil hat resolution denouncing the World Health Organization. They almost enacted a law that could have led to the arrests of librarians. (Lawmakers didn’t pass other anti-LGBTQ+ laws bills this this year. But don’t congratulate them for shifting the Overton Window on human decency to a partially-torn, sun-bleached photograph of Jesse Helms.)

  Lawmakers did nothing about the mounting horrors in our state prisons. Or Alabama’s rampant gun violence (still higher than New York’s). They couldn’t even ban organ harvesting without a family’s permission.

  Sure, they did some helpful things. Legislators voted to allow victims of abuse in the Boy Scouts to pursue justice. They authorized $10 million to feed children in the summer of 2025. They made our terrible open records law more workable.

  The Republican-dominated legislature erected (shaky) protections for in vitro fertilization after the Alabama Supreme Court tossed IVF providers into legal jeopardy. They shut down Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen’s ham-handed effort to throw President Joe Biden off the state ballot.

  So a few ounces of productivity in the scale. But they don’t elevate the nine tons of ugliness on the other side of the fulcrum — bills that made voting harder; education less equal, and history instruction fraught with peril.

  Nor does a half-baked, last-minute effort to address the problems of retirees, whose issues predate the Great Recession.

  I’m genuinely sorry for all those people who worked to improve our children’s lives. They deserve better.

  But they’re never going to be on the top of the agenda. In the Alabama Legislature, cruelty and nonsense trump all.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. A 2024 Pulitzer finalist for commentary, his work has also won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector.

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