Butler fights using tobacco fund to pay for education
MONTGOMERY - A North Alabama Senate leader ruled out Wednesday a proposal that would take some tobacco money earmarked for juvenile programs and use it to prop up the ailing state education budget.
That's totally off the table,'' said Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison.
Butler, the majority leader in the Senate, said some legislators considered siphoning portions of Alabama's scheduled annual payments from the national tobacco settlement to offset a $266 million loss to the state's $4.1 billion education budget blamed on a slumping economy.
Alabama's $3 billion share of the tobacco settlement, to be paid out over 25 years, was dedicated by previous legislation mainly for juvenile programs known as Children First.
The legislation called for new probation officers, school safety equipment, day care for working mothers, programs for troubled students, and full funding of a health insurance program for low-income children.
About $60 million to $70 million a year from the estimated $130 million in annual tobacco payments is earmarked for Children First. Much of the remainder goes to Medicaid and senior citizens programs.
Butler said legislators scrambling to offset losses to public schools, universities and two-year colleges are considering a variety of money sources, including tobacco money.
Talk of that raid triggered a flurry of calls and concerns by judges and other juvenile advocates wanting that money protected.
''We asked the (legislative) fiscal office to give us a litany of monies available in any pot of a significant nature,'' Butler said. ''We looked at tobacco money, risk management, retirement system money . . . The good thing is everybody is scratching their heads trying to come up with anything. That's a pot nobody would agree with.''
Children First legislation called for new probation officers, school safety equipment, day care for working mothers, programs for troubled students, and a health insurance program for low-income children. A House member, though, has introduced legislation that would lock the Children First money into a trust fund to be used to help prevent future education shortfalls.
Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, said interest on the investments would then be split between K-12 and higher education. The measure would be a constitutional amendment requiring statewide voter approval.
Allen acknowledged Wednesday that the legislation has little chance of passing in the current special session Gov. Don Siegelman called to address the education budget crisis. Allen said his main motive is to build support for putting the tobacco money into a trust fund and using only the interest.
Currently, the dedicated programs are to operate through regular payments from the fund.
Allen said lawmakers and Children First advocates will be in a bind if tobacco companies declare bankruptcy and stop the annual installments.
''We've got to get this tobacco money recognized as a one-time fund, but we're treating it as a continual revenue stream,'' he said.
Legislative attempts to set the tobacco money aside in a trust fund were unsuccessful when the Children First legislation was debated several years ago.