The one-time bonus falls short of the 2 percent permanent pay raise Gov. Robert Bentley asked for in his State of the State address, and it sparked heated debate in the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.
"These men and women who are teachers, they are treated like they are nothing by this Legislature, and that is unconscionable," said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, a member of the committee.
The committee voted Wednesday to approve a proposed $5.9 billion budget for the state's K-12 schools and higher education in 2015. Teachers and their advocates had hoped that a recovering economy would bring enough money into the state's Education Trust Fund — which gets most of its money from sales and income taxes — to pay for a 2 percent teacher pay raise.
That didn't happen.
"The economy has remained stagnant," said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, chairman of the committee. Pittman said slow growth in the economy, combined with the need to pay back the remainder of a $437 million loan from a state trust fund, has limited the state's ability to pay for a raise this year.
The final payment on the loan is due in 2015, but it's hard to know how much the state will actually owe next year. Lawmakers agreed last year that if the state has an unexpected windfall in 2014, the money will go to pay back the loan -- but the 2014 fiscal year doesn't end until October. Pittman said the state could owe $62 million on the loan next year, or more if the economy is worse than expected.
"We do have to balance the budget in a sustainable fashion," Pittman said
The one-time bonus drew criticism from Democrats on the committee, who had proposed a 6 percent pay raise for teachers, and who noted that Bentley, a Republican, had called for a bigger increase than Pittman proposed.
Henry Mabry, director of the Alabama Education Association, said the Legislature's demands of teachers in recent years — asking them to pay more for their health insurance and more toward retirement — amounted to a pay cut. If the state didn't increase teacher pay by 5.25 percent, Mabry said, this four-year legislative term would be the first since the Great Depression to produce a cut in teacher pay.
Mabry said that in addition to cuts in take-home pay, teachers were digging into their own pockets to buy supplies for underfunded classrooms.
"At the Hyundai plant, we don't have workers having to bring nuts and bolts," Mabry said.
Proponents of the one-time bonus said the state simply couldn't afford a pay raise.
"I'd like to make it 10 percent, but the fact is we have to live within our means," said Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville.
Other aspects of the K-12 school system fared slightly better. The state's schools would get $2.8 more for textbooks and $1.5 million more for transportation, and an additional $10 million would be spent to hire roughly 250 teachers for middle schools. The committee also approved a $10 million increase in the state's pre-K program, which Bentley has been hoping to expand to reach more of the state's children. The program got $28 million in 2014.
Alabama runs its affairs on two budgets, one for schools and one for other state functions. With all schools confined in one budget, budget hearings often force lawmakers to choose whether K-12 schools or higher education take higher priority.
The state's $1 billion university system took an $11 million hit in the Senate committee's budget proposal — but $10 million of that was from a single college.
Alabama State University, a historically black Montgomery school, was cut from $41 million to $31 million. The school is now undergoing a forensic audit amid allegations that the school mismanaged funds.
Pittman said the school could get the money back, under a "conditional appropriation" that would give ASU as much as $10 million if the state's revenue exceeds the amount budgeted in 2015.The governor would have the power to release that money, if it exists.
"There's going to have to see some accountability at the school," Pittman said.
The $10 million cut wasn't part of the governor's proposed budget.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said it wasn't fair to give Alabama State the bulk of the cuts.
""It looks strange that Alabama State was cut $10 million and all the others together were cut $1 million," he said.
Other colleges, including Jacksonville State University, faced smaller cuts. The Senate budget would give JSU $35.8 million in 2015, a cut of about $166,000.
JSU president William Meehan said the school was actually facing a budget cut of about $765,000 when new costs for health insurance and other services were taken into account.
Meehan told the Star earlier this year that the university had been hoping for a 5 percent increase, but was not likely to raise tuition unless the university saw a cut.
“We told students we would not raise tuition if we were level-funded,” he said. “I’m not sure we can keep that.”
Higher Education Partnership director Gordon Stone said cuts in state assistance to universities have increased the cost of higher education, discouraging people from going to college.
"We need these Alabama residents in college so the state can create the jobs it says it wants to achieve," he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.