Can a non-political panel save PACT?

Published 7:18 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If three prominent politicians couldn’t make any progress in convincing the Legislature to protect contract holders in the state’s prepaid college tuition program, what are the chances that three nonpolitical figures will be able to persuade lawmakers to take action?

The 46,000 Alabamians who are still invested in the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Program will find out next year.

Last week, members of the PACT board did what officials often do when they don’t what to do about a problem: They set up a task force to find answers. Three board members — Mobile attorney Russell Buffkin, Summit America chief executive Daniel Hughes of Montgomery and Andalusia Districting vice president Ricky Jones — will work on a solution for PACT’s woes with legislators and university officials.

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The PACT fund, which was heavily invested in the stock market, lost almost half of its value in the market crash. Projections indicate the program will run out of money in about five years. If that happens, thousands of young people whose parents and grandparents bought into the state’s promise of “tomorrow’s tuition at today’s prices” will be left out in the cold.

Last year the PACT board tried using three of its most high-profile members — Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., former two-year college system Chancellor Bradley Byrne and state Treasurer Kay Ivey — to conduct negotiations with the Legislature.

Treasurer Ivey and Mr. Byrne are Republican gubernatorial candidates with a direct stake in what happens to PACT. Lt. Gov. Folsom, a Democrat, gave the trio a bipartisan look. But in a year when lawmakers were dealing with falling tax revenues and shriveling budgets, the PACT board couldn’t find much support for what undoubtedly would be a costly solution to the program’s deficit.

We hope Mr. Buffkin, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Jones will have better luck. The board’s thinking is that, in an election year, it’s better to use negotiators who aren’t running for public office.

However, the biggest obstacle to a PACT bailout is lawmakers’ bipartisan reluctance to spend money when they don’t have much money to spend. And next year, the Legislature certainly will not be rolling in tax revenue.

Nevertheless, lawmakers need to give PACT parents concrete assurances about their contracts. The universities also need to demonstrate their commitment to a program that helps provide tuition revenue for their institutions.

The board is right: The PACT crisis shouldn’t turn into a political controversy. But it may be hard to avoid controversy in an election year, even with nonpolitical negotiators — and parents — working on the issue.