The House voted 57-10 Monday to reject an executive amendment that would put a two-year hold on tax credits under the Alabama Accountability Act, a new state law that would give some parents about $3,500 per year if they withdraw their children from “failing” schools. The Senate later concurred with the House action in a 19-15 vote.
“People don’t want to put their children on hold,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
The Accountability Act passed both houses Feb. 28 and was signed into law in March. The bill would grant a tax credit to parents of children zoned for schools deemed "failing" by the state, and would allow those students to transfer either to non-failing public schools or to private schools.
But after criticism from school administrators and teachers’ groups, lawmakers proposed a new bill, HB658, that would tweak the school tax credit program. Among other things, the new bill would give schools the right to deny admission to students who hope to transfer out of "failing" school zones.
Both houses passed HB658 earlier this month, but Bentley sent the bill back, saying he would not sign it unless the tax credit program was delayed for two years. The state still owes $423 million on money it borrowed from a rainy-day fund years ago, and Bentley said the tax credits should be on hold until the debt is paid back.
State officials have estimated the cost of the tax credits at between $30 million and $70 million per year.
Bentley's request created divisions within his own party, where Republican supporters of the bill said they didn't want to delay the tax credits.
"I do not agree with this executive amendment," said Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, sponsor of the bill that became the Accountability Act.
"I do not want to wait another day" to give students a chance to leave failing schools, Fincher said.
Democrats in the House questioned the Accountability Act's impact on the state education budget and asked why the governor didn't ask for a two-year delay when approving the original act. But House Democratic leader Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said members of his party largely sat out the vote.
"This is all just Republican infighting," Ford said.
In the Senate, though, HB568 faced a tough fight from Democrats. When Marsh, the Republican pro tem, moved to reject the governor’s amendment and approve HB658 as written, Senate Democrats blasted the governor, the Accountability Act and the bill that would revise that act.
"This bill was born in trickery and deceit and is a plague on public education in Alabama," said Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville.
Bedford said he opposed the changes in H658 that would allow schools to reject students transferring out of “failing” schools.
"It says… you may qualify for a voucher, but we don't want these inner city kids coming to our fancy schools."
Marsh defended the bill on the grounds that non-failing schools might not have the space for all students who seek to transfer. Even if some students were blocked, he said, some would get a chance to leave failing schools.
"Right now, the child doesn't even have the hope of an option,” he said.
In a prepared statement released after the vote, Bentley said the two-year delay was the fiscally responsible thing to do.
"My executive amendment was a fiscally responsible approach to improving public schools while also repaying the state’s debt to the Education Rainy Day Account," Bentley said. "The Legislature rejecting my amendment is fiscally irresponsible."
Bentley said he decided to seek the two-year delay after the Legislature produced a budget that set aside less money than he'd expected for the Rainy Day Fund payback.
Marsh, Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, and Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, voted for Marsh’s proposal in a voice vote.
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, was among the House Democrats who sat out the votes. Two of Calhoun County’s Republican representatives, Rep. Randy Wood of Saks and Rep. K.L Brown of Jacksonville, voted to override the governor. Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, voted for the two-year delay and against the override.
“I voted with the Governor,” Hurst said. “My superintendent back home asked me to support the governor. You’ve got to protect your own education money.”
Due to the override vote, HB568 will become law without the governor’s signature.
Marsh said he believed lawmakers would be able to see positive change from the tax credit program as early as next year.
“History will tell us at some point in time if this was the right decision," Marsh said.
The Legislature also gave final approval to a handful of local bills by press time Monday.
— The Senate voted 33-1 to approve a bill by Rep. K.L Brown, R-Jacksonville, that would allow a seat on the Jacksonville Civil Service Board to be declared vacant if a board member fails to show up for meetings.
— The Senate voted 29-1 for a bill that would make the librarian at the Jacksonville Public Library subject to the rules of the Civil Service Board. City Council members have said the librarian is currently under authority of the Library Board, an arrangement councilmen describe as as offering fewer protections for the librarian.
— The Senate passed a bill by Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke, that would waive pistol permit fees for retired and active law enforcement officials.
-- The Senate voted 14-0 with 7 abstentions in favor of a bill by Boyd to change the distribution of gas tax in Calhoun County. The bill would give more revenue to the county and less to the county's municipalities, consistent with a formula used in most other counties.
-- The Senate voted 17-0 with 5 abstentions in favor of a bill by Wood that would impose new limits on door-to-door sales in Calhoun County.
With dozens of local bills awaiting a vote, both houses were expected to meet until midnight.
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star. Star staff writers Leah Cayson and Madasyn Czebiniak contributed to this report.