MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- The Alabama Senate late Tuesday approved an education budget that would spend slightly more on schools next year, expand Alabama's pre-kindergarten program, and pay for a 2 percent raise for K-12 employees.
The Senate passed the budget 22-11, with support coming from Republicans and opposition from Democrats. The budget now goes back to the House, which passed a different version earlier.
The $5.77 billion budget was designed by Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee Chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne. It is slightly larger than one approved by the House and slightly smaller than one recommended by the governor when the legislative session started in February.
The budget is based on K-12 employees getting a 2 percent raise, their first since October 2007. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley recommended 2.5 percent, but the House went with 2 percent. The Senate voted 18-16 for a separate bill needed to make the pay raise official. Opposition came from senators who wanted a larger raise.
Pittman originally favored a 1 percent raise and a 1 percent bonus if the state collects more tax revenue than expected, but he said the sentiment in the Legislature was for 2 percent. He said the state's economy is improving enough that a 2 percent raise is likely sustainable.
The average teacher salary in Alabama is $47,527 a year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Democratic Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville offered an amendment increasing the raise to 5 percent. His proposal drew support from Democrats, but got voted down by the Republican majority.
"It's a sad day for education," Bedford said.
Pittman said the budget provides a 3.6 percent increase in spending after several years of recession-affected budgets. He said it would provide K-12 schools with more money for operations and transportation and would give colleges extra funding they could use for raises. He said educators would be getting raises in fiscal 2014 when other state employees would not.
The budget would provide the first $5 million ever for teacher liability insurance. Opponents said it's another attempt by the Legislature's Republican majority to weaken the Alabama Education Association, which supplies the insurance to its members. Proponents said all teachers need it.
The Senate budget would provide an extra $9.4 million to expand Alabama's voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds. That is less than the $12.5 million recommended by the governor in hopes of adding 2,000 students, but Pittman said it was all that could be afforded with a 2 percent raise and other spending increases.
Mike Luce, co-chair of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force, said that even though the amounts are different, the alliance is pleased that the governor and lawmakers "have agreed that more needs to be done to close the learning gap that begins in kindergarten through smart investments in high-quality, voluntary pre-k."
The Senate budget is based on Alabama's new private school tax credits reducing tax collections for education by $40 million. The House version of the budget figured on a $66 million reduction. The tax credits are available to parents who chose to send their children to a private school or a non-failing public school rather than a public school rated as failing.
The state's other budget, the General Fund budget for non-education agencies, previously passed the House and Senate in different forms. A conference committee is trying to work out a compromise.