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Judge Blocks Private School Tax Credit Bill from Going to Gov. Bentley

By: al.com
By: al.com

MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price issued an order this morning blocking a controversial school choice bill from being sent to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature today.

Legislative staff would have sent the bill to Bentley shortly after lawmakers convened at 1 p.m. Bentley planned to sign the bill this afternoon. Price issued his order shortly before 11 a.m.

The Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit Monday night seeking to stop the legislation that would give parents zoned for "failing" schools an estimated $3,500 income tax credit to help pay for tuition at a private school or another public school.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a taxpayer and claims that the Republican majority violated the Open Meetings Act when the tax credit program was added to a bill in conference committee with little discussion.

"When the conference committee goes off and takes a break and comes back and they've got a 27-page bill. We're saying they met and had an illegal meeting," said lawyer James Anderson.

A hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m before Price.

Republicans criticized the lawsuit.

"Union boss Henry Mabry will use whatever tactic, no matter how frivolous, to preserve the broken status quo that has failed our state for decades," Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said in a statement.

Bentley had planned to sign the bill in a ceremony this afternoon

“The flexibility we’ve given (with this bill) is the greatest gift we’ve ever given to school systems," Bentley said earlier in the day. Bentley said the existing system is “not fair for students who are trapped in the failing schools.”

The governor also defended the way the bill was approved.

“I don’t think anything was done unethically or illegally in any way…The rules of the House we obeyed. The rules of the Senate we obeyed," Bentley said.

Republican lawmakers are expected to fight the attempt to block the legislation.

"It's unfortunate that anyone would try to stop a bill that gives students in failing schools more options to receive a quality education." Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston,said.

The Alabama Senate slid into chaos on Thursday as the Republican majority approved the conference committee report over the angry shouts of Democrats.

Parents of children zoned for failing schools could receive an income tax credit equal to 80 percent of the average annual state cost for attendance of a public K-12 student to offset the cost of private school or a transfer to another public school.

Sponsor Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, estimated that the tax credit would equal about $3,500. He said it could be used by families at a failing school now and also used by families zoned for failing schools but who have their child enrolled in a private school already.

A failing school is described as one in the bottom 10 percent of statewide reading and math scores, has earned three consecutive D's or an F on upcoming school report cards or is designated by the Department of Education as failing.

The lawsuit claims that the Republican members of the conference committee, Sens. Marsh and Gerald Dial and Fincher and Jay Love, "met amongst themselves" to discuss the bill during the recess to the conference committee meeting.

"No other reasonable explanation exists for these four senators to leave a committee meeting discussing a 9-page bill and return less than two hour later and approve a new bill that ran 27 pages, with a different title and different provisions, which each appeared familiar with, and which each voted to approve with limited discussion."

The lawsuit claims that the meeting of the four lawmakers during the recess was a violation of the state's Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit claims that the four made up a quorum of the six-member committee, so that "their gathering, whether or not it was prearranged" during the recess to discuss the bill, constituted a "meeting" under the law.

It claims that they did not give notice of their meeting, as required by law, and the meeting was not open to the public.

The lawsuit also cites a violation of one of the Legislature's joint rules concerning committees, Rule 21.

The rule requires that meetings be posted at least one hour before the meeting.

The lawsuit claims another violation of Rule 21, which concerns appropriation bills, or bills that direct the spending of public funds.

Additions to the substitute bill included provisions for income tax credits for families zoned for "failing" schools and income tax credits for donors to scholarship granting organizations.

"Because public funds have been appropriated in this bill, the new bill designated HB84 is an appropriation bill," the lawsuit claims.

Rule 21 on committees reads, in part: "The Committee on Conference shall not introduce a new appropriation item, earmark funds for any item that did not appear in either the House-passed or Senate-passed version, or propose new language that did not appear in either the House-passed or Senate-passed version."

The lawsuit claims that a majority vote of the House and Senate is required to suspend Rule 21, and it claims those votes were not done.


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