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In the Alabama Legislature, it’s the culture wars first, retirees second

When lawmakers committed $12 billion in spending late in the recently concluded legislative session, they discovered education retirees.

These are the teachers and support staff who have spent 20, 30 years or more educating you and your children. They ensured that the children in their care were fed, sheltered and educated as best as local resources permitted.

They have not seen a cost-of-living increase in their benefits since 2007.

There’s a reason for that: it’s expensive. A 1% increase for retirees would cost the Education Trust Fund (ETF) approximately $200 million. By comparison, the University of South Alabama, with about 14,000 students, will receive $161.4 million from next year’s budget.

To get around this, the Legislature created a retiree trust fund in 2021. It doesn’t produce a COLA. Instead, it pays retiree bonuses.

But lawmakers will decide each year whether to pay out bonuses. Nothing will come out of the trust fund until it has $100 million in it. And lawmakers can’t fill it with ETF money.

So in the twilight of the 2024 session, the Senate used a supplemental spending bill to put $5 million into the fund. The House took it out.

Senators were not happy.

“Next year the education budget will start in this House, and you can count on us making a contribution to that pension fund for our retired state educators,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decaturthe chairman of the Senate Education Budget Committee.

Orr’s House counterpart, Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, later noted that $5 million wouldn’t come close to meeting the retirees’ needs. The House, he said, has placed the money where it could have a more direct impact.

“I’m sympathetic,” he said. “I’m trying to be practical by telling you that the solution included in the supplement does not address the problem or even come close.”

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to retirees. And it’s not easy to move money around in our heavily earmarked tax system.

But if lawmakers cared about this issue, couldn’t they have worked on it at the beginning of the session?

Instead of all that terrible legislation they rushed through in the first few weeks?

Like SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, which criminalized certain forms of absentee ballot assistance. The law itself is bad enough, but supporters justified it by pointing to mostly poor, mostly rural, and mostly black counties that have a higher-than-average use of absentee ballots. That’s not a crime and could reflect a larger number of sick or elderly people, two groups that could exceed the state’s high bar for absentee voting.

Or SB 129, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, which banned public funding of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. It also gave the most vulnerable among us the power to subject teachers to professional harassment for teaching accurate history.

Or HB 129, sponsored by Garrett. When fully implemented, this will siphon at least $100 million from the ETF to distribute tax credits for non-public education purposes (including private school tuition).

Do you find yourself needing $100 million to start paying bonuses to retirees? I do. $100 million also gets you a small retiree COLA halfway, or a 2% pay increase for current education workers (on top of what lawmakers approved this year).

Instead, those tax dollars will flow out of the ETF and into private entities. After 2027, there will no longer be an income test for tax credits. In the eyes of the law, a family that can spend nearly $30,000 a year at the Indian Springs School or $25,000 a year at the Randolph School in Huntsville is as needy as a child in a Black Belt district struggling to find teachers to attract. We take money from public schools that need help and give it to private schools that don’t.

I could go on. The legislature passed a bill forcing employers to prolong labor disputes. They passed a resolution denouncing the World Health Organization. They almost passed a law that could have led to the arrest of librarians. (Lawmakers passed no other anti-LGBTQ+ bills this year. But don’t congratulate them for shifting the Overton window on human decency to a partially torn, sun-bleached photo of Jesse Helms.)

Lawmakers did nothing about the mounting horrors in our state prisons. Or the rampant gun violence in Alabama (still higher than New York). They couldn’t even ban organ harvesting without a family’s consent.

Sure, they’ve done some useful things. Lawmakers voted to let victims of abuse in the Boy Scouts pursue justice. They approved $10 million to feed children by summer 2025. They made our terrible open records law more workable.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has established (shaky) protections for in vitro fertilization after the Alabama Supreme Court placed IVF providers in legal jeopardy. They blocked Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen’s struggling effort to oust President Joe Biden from the state’s ballot.

So a few grams of productivity in the balance. But they don’t elevate the nine tons of ugliness on the other side of the support base – bills that made voting harder; education less equal and history education full of dangers.

Nor is it a half-baked last-minute attempt to address the problems of retirees, whose problems predate the Great Recession.

I am truly sorry to all those who worked to improve the lives of our children. They deserve better.

But they will never be at the top of the agenda. In the Alabama legislature, cruelty and nonsense rule all.

Brian Lyman is the editor of the Alabama Reflector.Brian Lyman is the editor of the Alabama Reflector.

Brian Lyman is the editor of the Alabama Reflector.

Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006, working at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. He lives in Auburn with his wife Julie and their three children.

Alabama reflector is part of States Newsroom, an independent, nonprofit website covering politics and policy in state capitals across the country.

This article originally appeared on the Montgomery Advertiser: In the Alabama Legislature, it’s culture wars first, retirees second | BRIAN LYMAN

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