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Ala. Legislature rejects Bentley's 2-year-delay

Phillip Rawls, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- The Republican majority in the Alabama Legislature handed the GOP governor a major defeat Monday night by rejecting his proposal to delay the start of private school tax credits for two years.

The House voted against the governor's proposal 57-10 Monday. Then the Senate agreed 19-15 at the urging of the architect of the tax credits, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh. Most Republicans voted against the governor, while most Democrats either voted with him or did not vote.

Marsh said the state shouldn't wait on giving tax credits to parents who move their children from failing public schools to private schools, or non-failing public schools.

"People don't want to put their child on hold," he said.

Gov. Robert Bentley called the legislative votes "fiscally irresponsible."

"My first responsibility is to the people of this state, and I believe the majority of the people support this executive amendment," Bentley said.

The disputed tax credits are part of the Alabama Accountability Act that the Republican majority passed Feb. 28 and that the governor signed into law.

The bill provides flexibility to city and county school systems in complying with state education laws. It also provides state tax credits of about $3,500 for parents who enroll a child in a private school or non-failing public school rather than a public school rated as failing.

Bentley wanted to delay the tax credits until 2015 to allow time for failing schools to improve and for the state to repay $423 million taken from a state savings account to prevent education budget cuts during the recession.

House budget committee Chairman Jay Love, R-Montgomery, said the state is financially capable of beginning the tax credits now and repaying the money by a 2015 deadline. Estimates of how much the credits will reduce tax collections annually range from $40 million to $65 million, with the Bentley administration leaning toward the high end.

The sponsor of the Accountability Act, Republican Rep. Chad Fincher of Semmes, said he was frustrated with the governor because he never discussed any concerns about the tax credits when he signed the Accountability Act in March and not for weeks afterward.

"I don't want to wait another day to provide an opportunity to kids in failing schools," Fincher said.

Bentley's proposal was an executive amendment he attached to a bill passed by the Legislature two weeks ago to clarify the definition of a failing school and to make sure no private or non-failing public school has to take a student from a failing school. The House rejected his amendment 57-10 and then voted 59-6 to reapprove the bill. That sent the bill to the Senate for the decisive vote that turned the bill into law.

Bentley's opponent in next year's Republican primary for governor, former Morgan County Commissioner Stacy Lee George, watched the vote from the House gallery. "This governor is weak, and this proves it," said George, an opponent of the bill.

The bill also provides tax credits for individuals and businesses who donate to scholarships for children whose parents can't afford to move them from a failing school even with the tax credits. Marsh said he will start immediately trying to raise money for scholarships.

"History will prove if we have made the right decision. I think we have," Marsh said.

Democratic Sen. Hank Sanders said the tax credits are historic, but for a different reason.

"We will look back and see this is the moment we stopped moving forward with public education," Sanders said.