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On Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed an $8.17 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget for fiscal year 2023. The bill passed by a vote of 100-1, with Rep. Andrew Sorrell (R-Muscle Shoals) being the lone House member to vote against the budget.
Let that sink in for a minute. The House just passed the largest education budget in state history, a half-billion-dollar increase over this year’s enacted level, and just one member voted against it. No Democrats, the minority party, took issue with the bill. Republicans were in near-unanimous agreement.
After the ETF budget’s passage, Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), the bill’s sponsor, said “It went better than I expected.”
I’m not sure what Rep. Garrett expected. In the past four years, there have been just three ‘no votes' in the House on an ETF budget, all by Sorrell.
But spending $8.17 billion dollars of your, the taxpayers, money should not be that easy. If almost every member of the legislature supports a budget, then citizens are likely the ones losing.
From 2019 to 2022 the ETF budget (including supplemental appropriations), is on pace to grow by almost 35 percent. Lawmakers talk of these “record budgets” like they are something to be proud of. To be clear, these are record expansions of Alabama’s government. Government is taking and spending more taxpayer money than at any point in history. That’s not something that a Republican supermajority-controlled legislature should be proud of.
What exactly are you paying for?
In a recent interview with 1819 News Political Editor Jeff Poor, Rep. Garrett touted the fact that the budget is “putting money into the underperforming schools.” Whether simply sending more money to the poorest performing schools will lead to better results is questionable at best, but the reality is that of the half-billion in new education spending, just $15.4 million is earmarked towards that.
Tuesday Garrett said that “Over half of the increase (in the ETF) is in salaries.” He’s referring to a 4 percent pay raise for all education-related employees, not just teachers, which will cost about $179 million each year. This is on top of a 2 percent annual raise passed last year. A separate bill also provides $58 million in one-time bonuses for retired education employees.
Alabama’s average private-sector earnings grew by less than 3 percent in 2021 and declined the previous two years. Instead of using excess taxes to provide a 6 percent raise to the public sector, lawmakers should be looking for ways to take less from all Alabamians.
Garrett said Tuesday that while preparing the budget “we cut $200 million in taxes.” If $200 million in tax cuts are actually enacted this session, it’s better than nothing, but the ETF budget had a $1.3 billion balance to start the year.
Rep. Garrett said that “In this ETF budget our revenue is artificially inflated” because of federal COVID relief payments that have increased tax receipts. If that is justification for not pursuing bolder tax relief for citizens, it doesn’t make sense. The state plans to spend nearly all the $1.3 billion surplus for additional 2022 education spending. The budget passed this week then adds another $500 million in new spending.
If revenues are artificially inflated, then why is all the surplus going towards new spending? A surplus represents too much money being taxed from citizens. If government is unwilling to return citizens’ money or take less in the future, shouldn’t that surplus be saved for if or when state revenues deflate?
Since the state is spending all the surplus, the logical conclusion is that growing government is a bigger priority than taking less taxes from Alabamians.
Rep. Garrett did say that taxes need to be lower going forward and that his committee is still looking at a proposal to eliminate the state sales tax on groceries, which could save citizens nearly $600 million annually. Rep. Mike Holmes (R-Wetumpka) introduced a bill to do that nearly two months ago. It has yet to receive even a committee hearing. If it hasn’t been considered in a year of record surpluses, then when?
A state legislator recently told me that everyone votes yes on the budgets. That’s the mentality amongst the lawmakers that we elect. But that is not what’s best for citizens. It’s our money being spent, and it deserves real debate, not a rubber stamp.
As the ETF budget moves to the Senate, Alabamians must demand a change in that mentality.
Justin Bogie serves as Senior Director of Fiscal Policy at the Alabama Policy Institute. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: Commentary@1819News.com.