State committee approves plan to save PACT

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The House Education Committee voted unanimously to approve a plan that would use future education funds to save the PACT plan.

It would help 45,000 families. The bill is sponsored by Gadsden's Rep. Craig Ford.

PACT parents, and perhaps more importantly, the AEA supports the plan.

Ford's plan Wednesday would use savings that will come from lower bond payments beginning in 2014. And instead of depositing those funds back into the education trust fund, it would divert the money to shore up PACT.

Between 2014 and 2020, $236 million total would be used to save PACT.

"In essence we're not taking money out of the education trust fund, but yes we are taking money that would've gone to the Education Trust Fund starting in the year 2014," Ford said.

"It's a bargain for the state of Alabama," said Patty Lambert, president of the Save Alabama PACT Organization. "The RSA study shows that a billion dollars would be needed to shore up the program. So now we can do it with 1/4th of the money, provided we get the tuition cap."

Ford says the biggest hurdle to clear will be a provision to cap tuition increases for PACT students at 2.5% each year.

The universities, Alabama and Auburn, oppose this part of the plan, but Rep. Ford says that they may be willing to compromise.

"The universities have let it be known that they don't want the PACT program dying at their feet. So I think they may just hold their nose and turn away," Ford said.

"I hope Alabama and Auburn will come on board," Lambert said. "They certainly have been the 2 schools in our state that, since this program started, have profited the most. Seventy-one cents of every dollar has gone to Alabama or Auburn."

But the PACT program would likely be permanently shut off to new families even as state funds continue to support it, raising questions of fairness.

"I don't think it's fair, but my response to that would be, ' well, you can still participate in 529 plans, which your rate of return on those investments could be greater than what the PACT program would be,'" Ford said.

The bill still faces several major tests including a vote in the full house and votes in the senate. Representative Ford says he feels like he's run the first leg of a marathon, but there is still a long way to go.