$300M Fund for Alabama High-tech Research Proposed

The following appeared in yesterday’s Birmingham News paper… we’ll be keeping an eye on this proposal.

Proration account eyed for research
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
KENT FAULK, News staff writer

A state senator outlined a plan Tuesday to use $300 million or more from an education rainy day fund to pay for high-tech research and economic development projects such as biofuel production.

“Ultimately, what I want is jobs,” said state Sen. Steve French, R-Mountain Brook.

But the head of the state teachers’ lobby believes the senator should look elsewhere for the money.

French announced his plan to members of the Alabama Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research during a meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The group is made up of university researchers from around the state.

He proposes taking $300 million to $350 million out of the state’s proration prevention account to start a program to help fund high-tech, biomedical and biofuel research at state universities and economic development projects.

“I think we need to become the leading state in the union, if not the entire world, in biofuels research,” French said.

A board or group would be set up to review funding requests, French said. The senator said he’s still ironing out details of the proposal and is seeking help from others.

If universities were given state money in research grants, French said, they also could get federal matching funds. For every state dollar, a university could get up to $5, sometimes more, from the federal government, meaning they could parlay the state dollars into $1 billion or more, French said.

He said he plans to present a bill in the upcoming session of the Alabama Legislature, which begins March 6, to set up the program and to change a state law so money could be used from the proration prevention account.

Legislators set up that account to help during times of proration – when the education budget does not receive as much money in taxes as projected and across-the-board cuts must be made. Because of recent surpluses, that account will have $425 million or more in it at the end of this year.

French proposes leaving $102 million in the account, which would be in addition to $248 million that is in another rainy day account. Under the state’s constitution, money from that second account can’t be used for anything other than education in times of state proration.

French also proposes setting $25 million to $50 million aside to offset extra costs for education retirees’ health insurance.

“We’re not going to take a dollar out of the classroom. We’re not going to take a dollar away from a program,” French said. “Investing wisely and paying for the future is the best way I know to prevent proration,” he said.

But Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said French should get the money for his program from somewhere else. Revenue from oil and gas exploration already is set aside for economic development, he said.

“I just don’t believe that proposal will fly,” Hubbert said.

Universities are better funded proportionately than K-12 schools, Hubbert said, and the rainy-day account should be preserved for schools.

The state struggled to fund education several years ago, before the past two years of surpluses, Hubbert said.

“It’s strange how quickly we forget,” he said.

E-mail: kfaulk@bhamnews.com

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