DROP bill nears passage

Published 8:32 am Friday, March 11, 2011

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A Republican-backed bill to end by April 1 deferred retirement benefits for state employees and school workers was one step from final passage in the Alabama House on Thursday.

The retirement program was created by the then Democrat-controlled Legislature a decade ago as an incentive to prevent seasoned teachers from retiring and going to neighboring states to complete their careers.

But Republicans, who won control of the Statehouse last year, argued the program had become too expensive and that it was mostly benefiting high-ranking state employees or highly paid coaches and not rank-and-file teachers.

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The House voted 59-40 to end the program, but the bill was amended and had to go back to the Senate, which adjourned without voting on the changes. Majority leader Sen. Jabo Waggoner of Vestavia Hills said some senators had left and there were not enough votes to end debate by Democrats.

The House sponsor, Republican Rep. Barry Mask of Wetumpka, said it would save the state more than $58 million next year. He said lawmakers come up with a different, less expensive plan.

“We owe it to taxpayers to come up with a program that’s more fiscally sound,” Mask said.

Democrats counter it would drive quality teachers out of state and that it wasn’t fair to change the rules for longtime employees who were planning to enter the program.

The program allows public employees who are at least 55 years old and have 25 years of service to continue their state jobs while putting their retirement benefits into a special interest-bearing account for up to five years.

Also Thursday, the first bill to make it all the way through the 2011 session of the Alabama Legislature passed the Senate.

It redesigns the way the state education budget is written to try to prevent midyear budget cuts.

Gov. Robert Bentley, who supported the bill, has scheduled a ceremony to sign the legislation on Friday.

The bill by Rep. Greg Canfield of Vestavia Hills would end the practice of basing the state education budget on forecasts of tax revenue the state will receive. Instead, it will be based largely on revenue trends for the last 15 years. In years when tax collections grow faster than historic trends, the extra money will be saved and used to stabilize spending in lean years.

Former Senate budget committee Chairman Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said the Senate’s new Republican majority portrayed themselves in last year’s campaign as fiscal conservatives who wouldn’t overspend, and that campaign promise makes Canfield’s bill unnecessary.

“Formulas can’t substitute for leadership,” he said.

“But they can provide discipline,” said Senate budget committee Chairman Trip Pittman, D-Daphne.

Sanders said the legislation bars the Legislature from giving more money to public schools when the economy is growing rapidly. Instead, money will sit in a savings account for years when the economy and tax revenue drops.

“If my family is starving, I feed them before I save. We are taking the opposite approach,” Sanders said.

Supporters said bill is the result of the governor having to make midyear budget cuts 20 times since 1950 because the Legislature appropriated more money for schools than the state received. They said it would provide stability in funding and prevent midyear cuts.