State Superintendent stops in Demopolis

Published 11:09 pm Thursday, October 2, 2008

Alabama state schools superintendent Dr. Joseph Morton was in town on Thursday, meeting with superintendents from Alabama’s District 2 at the Demopolis City Schools Education building.

He discussed the proposed Alabama constitution amendment, called Amendment 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, which will provide more money for education in Alabama in the event of proration, when education budgets must be cut due to a state budget shortfall.

“There is currently a constitutional amendment on the books that creates a ‘rainy-day fund’ for education,” he said. “It was adopted in 2002. It has a few little flaws in it that this amendment would correct.

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“One flaw is, when that amendment was written, it gave education the ability to access money out of the oil and gas trust fund, 6 percent of the 2002 education budget. It actually said that in the constitutional amendment, but it froze in time the amount — 6 percent of the 2002 budget — so that was, in dollars, not to exceed $248 million.

“Well, that was seven years ago,” he said, “and things change, and you have inflation and growth. It will always be frozen in time until things change. This constitutional amendment rewrites it to say 6.5 percent of the previous year’s budget, so it keeps it current.

“My analogy would be: If you went into your business and said, ‘We’re going to give everybody a 5-percent pay raise based on your 2002 salary.’ They like the 5 percent, but they would say, ‘Wait a minute! I make more now than I did in 2002. It costs more to live.’ And that’s kind of where we are.”

Morton said that he expects state education to need that extra money this year.

“This year, we will be in proration,” he said. “We are subject to the national economy like everyone else, and the two big taxes in education in Alabama are sales tax and income tax. As the economy has slowed down, there have been businesses that have had to lay people off or not give raises, so that slowed the income tax growth. Then, with this gasoline issue, people don’t have as much discretionary income as they used to have, so they don’t buy as many clothes or other things that go into the sales tax.

“We’re seeing a slowdown. The fiscal year that ended Tuesday, we saw a negative amount of sales tax; it actually went down a full percentage point from the previous year. That means that the budget that we started Wednesday will be in proration.

“This amendment will allow education to access that money from the oil and gas trust fund up to 6.5 percent, and in numbers, that means that we could get up to $435 million, if we had to get that much, and help level out the pain of proration over several years. We would have to pay it back; I mean, it’s not free money. We would get it and have to pay it back over the next six years and not have education suffer all of it in one year. It’s a good way to get through those downturns.

“It’s not a tax,” he said. “It won’t cost anybody any money. Nothing is going to change on the tax scene, but it will allow education to get through proration a little easier than we would if it wouldn’t pass.”

The vote for the constitutional amendment will be in the general election on Nov. 4. Gov. Bob Riley supports the amendment.

“What we need is a leveling effect,” Riley said on Wednesday, “so if the economy goes down, you don’t have to cut the programs off. Those are the programs that are just blowing every other state away. The last thing we need to do is to shut them down, then have to start them back up a year or two from now.

“It really comes at a terrible time, because we are seeing so many positives,” Morton said. “We’ve got reading scores going up, math scores going up, distance ed. going into all our high schools — just showing great growth in so many areas, and it hurts me to think about all of that coming to a screeching halt, just when we’re getting this momentum going.”

Demopolis City Schools superintendent Dr. L. Wayne Vickers also wholeheartedly supports the amendment, saying it is vitally needed to help maintain the level of education and keep it on the upswing, as it has been in recent years.