MONTGOMERY — A judge temporarily blocked Gov. Robert Bentley from signing a private school tax credit bill into law Tuesday after a teachers' group sued, saying the Legislature broke open meetings laws and its own rules when it passed the legislation.
Circuit Judge Charles Price, a Democrat, said he would rule on whether to extend the temporary restraining order today.
Bentley defended the bill early Tuesday and said he'd sign it when it got to his desk. His fellow GOP members also stuck up for the much-changed piece of legislation and the process they went through to pass it last Thursday evening. Democrats, on the other hand, said Alabamians should be outraged over the lack of transparency.
Bentley, speaking outside the Capitol, said that amid the controversy a lot of good things in the bill are getting lost.
"People don't realize how important this bill is," he said. The bill still contains the flexibility measures that superintendents originally supported.
"This is something they've worked for for years," Bentley said. "Now they have it."
He said he still doesn't know how much the tax credits could cost the state in lost education trust fund revenue.
The Alabama Education Association maintains the tax credits would hurt funding for public schools because Alabama's income tax supports public education. Republicans believe the bill would give students more choice for a quality education.
The mastermind behind the bill, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told the TimesDaily on Tuesday there was nothing wrong with the way lawmakers passed the bill.
"The process is this: When you have the votes, you move your legislation," he said. "We had the votes.
"You can say anything you want about the process, but at the end of the day, the families and children in failing schools won," he said.
The bill started out as a way to provide more flexibility to city and county school boards in complying with state education laws. After the House and Senate passed different versions, a Republican-dominated conference committee rewrote the bill and tripled its size.
The changes added tax credits for parents who decide to send their children to private schools rather than failing public schools. It also set up a scholarship program for parents who can't afford private school tuition, with businesses and individuals getting tax credits for contributing toward the scholarships.
The Alliance for School Choice said Alabama would become the 12th state with a tax credit program.
"It's unfortunate that anyone would try to stop a bill that gives students in failing schools more options to receive a quality education," Marsh said.
AEA's suit maintains the Republican majority on the conference committee violated the open meetings law by writing the new version in private without any public notice, and without including the two Democratic members of the committee.
AEA's suit argues that the Legislature didn't follow its own rules when Republicans in the House and Senate approved the changes on party-line votes Thursday night. The suit said the House and Senate each did it with one vote when two votes were necessary under legislative rules — one to approve the changes made by the conference committee and a second to approve the overall bill.
Representatives from Morgan County told a group of visitors from Decatur on Tuesday that the rules they used to pass the bill were actually ones Democrats established years ago, they just don't like them now that they're in the minority.
Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, also said he was concerned about the judicial branch of government being able to halt action in the legislative branch.
"(Price) has overstepped his bounds, in my opinion, by interrupting the legislative process," Henry said.
House Democrats said if they re-gain the majority in 2014, the first thing they'd do is repeal the law.
They said they were only given about 30 minutes to read the bill, which grew from nine pages to 27, before the vote Thursday night. As a result, Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Democrats for the rest of the legislative session are "going to slow the process down."
Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said that under this bill, all public schools, even high-performing ones, will lose money.
Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, who normally doesn't caucus with her fellow Democrats, joined them to say that they and voters had been deceived on Thursday.
"Every citizen had a right to participate in that process," she said. "If you believe in democracy, you should be outraged."
Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, said the bill, which includes scholarship provisions for those who can't afford private school tuition even with the tax credit, will allow private schools to recruit the best athletes and students from failing public schools.
"They can do that now, if they're offering scholarships," countered Marsh.
Mary Sell can be reached at email@example.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.