That the 2019 state legislative session was “certainly very tough” is a statement that three of the legislators serving Dale County agree on.
“Probably the toughest we’ve had in a long time,” said seven-term District 93 State Rep. Steve Clouse.
Clouse was joined by District 29 State Sen. Donnie Chesteen and District 89 State Rep. Wes Allen in providing a legislative session recap to those attending the Dale County Republican Executive Committee meeting June 17 in Ozark.
The benefits to state roads and bridges from the new gas tax, a 4 percent pay raise for teachers and a 2 percent pay raise for state employees were among the topics the legislators outlined.
The state legislature passed a $7.1 billion Education Trust Fund budget and a $2.1 billion General Fund budget. “We had some good budgets this year because we had a good economy,” Clouse said. “This year was the largest education budget that we’ve ever passed.”
Clouse said that the education budget is derived primarily from income and sales taxes. After passing what was then the largest education budget of $6.7 billion in 2007, the economy “fell off the cliff the next year and we went from $6.7 billion to $5.4 billion,” he said.
“We took at $1.3 billion hit in one year,” Clouse remembered. “We were scrambling. Thankfully we got some stimulus dollars from Washington like every other state did to make it through the year. Things were really tough.”
The Republicans gained control of the legislature in the 2010 state elections and during the 2011 session, the Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act fund was established as a means of making the Education Trust Fund resistant to proration through a rolling reserve process.
Called the Rolling Reserve Act, the legislation set a cap on education spending based on the prior 15 years average of actual education revenues, Clouse said. “And any money we have over, we carry that over to the next year in a very organized financial system like you use in your family or small business budgets.”
Chesteen agreed. “One of the best pieces of legislation was the Rolling Reserve where we can budget based on real numbers,” he said. “I met with a group of our district (school) superintendents in the Wiregrass right before the session (began) and I asked how many of them had to deal with proration in your schools.
“There was only one,” Chesteen said. “Our (school) superintendents today have never had to deal with the real hardships of budget cuts during the middle of the year.”
Chesteen said that $190 million additional dollars are available in the K-12’s education foundation budget. “We have an additional $28 million this year going for school transportation,” he said. “Many of our school systems have buses that are 15 years old so that is going to help us replace those.”
Chesteen said that the governor has appropriated an additional $26 million to the state’s pre-kindergarten program which will create 164 more pre-K classes.
There is funding for 250 new teachers in grades 4, 5 and 6, Chesteen said, adding that in the last three years, some 600 new teacher slots have been allocated for those grade levels.
“Our teachers received a 4 percent pay raise this year and for the first time, our teachers in Alabama will start at above $40,000 a year,” Chesteen said.
Chesteen said that increased funding is allocated for reading in the primary grades. “If (students) are not reading at grade level by third grade, they will be held back a year,” he explained. “From kindergarten through third grade, students are learning to read and beyond that they are reading to learn.
“If they don’t know how to read by the third grade, we have failed them,” Chesteen said. “It’s going to be an ongoing effort but I am looking forward to seeing how we can raise those (test) scores.”
A freshman legislator, Allen said that he was happy to see a bill was passed requiring schools to offer recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at school every school day morning.
“Another bill that I was happy to support was the Campus Free Speech bill which goes into effect in July 2020 to make sure that campuses can’t up the security fees to discourage uncomfortable speech,” Allen said about the bill intended to safeguard freedom of speech on college campuses and provide a cause of legal action for violations by public higher education institutions under the legislation. “The universities should be free to hear all ideas and protect free speech.”
“This was my ninth year (in legislature) and without a doubt the most difficult,” Chesteen said, calling Clouse the legislative “dean” and thanking him for mentorship and guidance. “And my hat’s off to Wes Allen being a freshman and walking into the tough session that he walked into. He did an outstanding job.”