After his trial balloon about returning the projected Education Trust Fund surplus to taxpayers went over like a lead balloon
with key Democratic leaders, Gov. Bob Riley has unveiled Plan B: Use the money as part of a $500 million school construction and technology project
. The initiative would include $50 million to go toward a biomedical research center at UAB.
The plan would distribute money based on enrollment to every public school system in the state, prompting Alabama Education Association executive secretary Paul Hubbert, whose power in Montgomery
is impossible to overestimate, to denounce it
as "an election-year proposal because politicians love bricks and mortar. They love to see their name on the sign outside the school." Hubbert plans to push, as he has for umpteen years, for higher teacher salaries and more teachers.
A massive, highly visible school repair program naturally would be a political boon for Riley, but House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, is right to note as a practical matter
that above-average tax revenues aren't annual occurrences and that lean years could make it difficult to meet recurring obligations created in more prosperous times. In that regard, at least, infrastructure investments would seem to be a wise move. On the flip side, Alabama teachers' pay hasn't kept pace with cost-of-living increases over the last decade, so a need remains there, too.
One final observation: I haven't seen the details, but at least on the surface, I'm uncomfortable with Riley's proposal to spend $35 million from one of the state's rainy-day education funds while the budgetary sun is shining. As a general matter, I'd prefer to see that money left alone, or perhaps consolidated into the state's larger rainy-day fund.
In the end, I expect a compromise between Hubbert and Riley, with Hubbert, as he did last year
, getting slightly more of what he wants than Riley does. It's significant to note, though, that the debate over the education budget has shifted in a month's time from whether
the surplus should be spent on public schools to how
it should be spent on public schools. On that point, the education lobby already can claim a victory.