BY PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
Gov. Robert Bentley is asking the Legislature to delay Alabama's private school tax credits for two years to give failing schools time to improve and allow the state to pay a huge debt before the new tax break reduces tax collections.
State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice quickly embraced the governor's proposal Wednesday, but two proponents of the tax breaks, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, didn't.
Hubbard, R-Auburn, and Marsh, R-Anniston, issued brief statements saying they will discuss Bentley's proposal with legislators, who return to Montgomery on Monday for the final meeting day of the 2013 legislative session.
Bentley said he had talked to both Republican leaders on Monday and Tuesday and was prepared for their response. "We may not get this through the Legislature, but we are going to try," he said.
The Republican-led Legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act over Democratic opposition on Feb. 28. It gives school systems flexibility in complying with state education laws if the changes will produce better student performance. It also provides tax credits of about $3,500 per year for parents who move their child from a public school rated as failing to a private school. And it provides tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to scholarships for children in failing schools whose parents can't afford private school tuition.
The Republican governor said he's not a supporter of using public tax dollars to support private education, but he signed the bill into law because of the flexibility provisions. He said he had been looking for a vehicle to amend it when the Legislature sent him a bill last week to clarify the definition of a failing school. He said he will send the bill back to the Legislature on Monday with an amendment postponing the tax credits and the scholarships until fall 2015.
He said that would give failing schools time to try the flexibility provisions and possibly get out of failing status. He said it also would keep the tax credits — estimated at close to $65 million a year by the state finance officials — from kicking in before the state's 2015 deadline to pay back $423 million to a state trust fund. State officials borrowed the money from the Alabama Trust Fund during the recession to prevent massive cuts in school funding.
"It makes us fiscally responsible because the people of this state expect that we always pay our debts," Bentley said.
The Legislature can accept Bentley's proposal with a majority vote or reject it with a majority vote. If rejected, the bill automatically takes effect without the delay.
The state superintendent of education, who always opposed the tax credits, welcomed Bentley's proposal and the challenge of improving failing schools within two years. "I think I've been given my two-year work plan," Bice said.
Teacher lobbyist Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said the AlabamaAccountability Act was "a horrible mistake" from the beginning and delaying it two years won't make it any better. AEA is challenging the law in court.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Bentley's proposal is an effort by the Republican governor to delay an unpopular act until after the 2014 election for governor and Legislature. "But the people of Alabama will not forget about this," he said.
Bentley said his decision had nothing to do with next year's election, when he will be seeking a second term.