From the Office of Governor Robert Bentley
February 7, 2012
Governor Robert Bentley
Lieutenant Governor Ivey, Speaker Hubbard, President Pro Tem Marsh, distinguished guests, members of the Legislature and my fellow Alabamians:
It is in indeed an honor to join you in this Chamber as we reflect on a year of historic events and cast a bold vision for the future of our state.
To members of my Cabinet thank you for your service and for meeting the challenges we face as a state with courage and the hearts of servant leaders. It is a privilege to work with each of you.
Chief Justice Malone, distinguished members of the Alabama Supreme Court – thank you for your leadership and your service to our state.
As we reflect on the first year of my administration and chart a course for the future, I want us all to remember, state government belongs to the people of this state. As public servants chosen to lead this state, we must begin every day with a commitment to give Alabamians every opportunity to make their lives better.
The people of this state expect us to make tough decisions in tough times. They expect us to come together, to work together to create jobs, to give our children the best education and to improve our quality of life.
As we face the days ahead, we must have the courage to make difficult decisions, we must have compassion for the people we serve, and we must work together to improve the lives of all Alabamians.
The first time we met together, right here in this historic chamber, I pledged to do all I could to put Alabamians back to work.
As I stand before you tonight, I’m pleased to report that since we took office, 41 thousand more Alabamians are working. That’s 41 thousand more Alabamians earning a paycheck today than a year ago. And more jobs are on the way.
We have recruited over 13,000 new, future jobs to Alabama. International companies from India, Germany and Japan and right here in the United States are investing more that 3 point 2 billion dollars in our state and in our people.
And just today there was more good news. A Chinese company will bring up to 500 new jobs to Wilcox County where we have the highest unemployment rate in the state.
In the last four months Alabama’s unemployment rate has dropped faster than any other state in the nation.
We’ve done this despite facing tough competition from other states and with limited ability to offer incentives to businesses.
So why are national and international business leaders choosing to invest in Alabama? They recognize that Alabama has the strongest business climate, best work force training, and the hardest working people they will find anywhere.
They also know that our leaders at every level of government and our local economic developers take a team approach to putting Alabamians back to work.
There is no better example of that than what we did to help the town of Hackleburg. We all remember what happened in April. This community of 1,400 people in Northwest Alabama was devastated by the storms. Twenty-five people were killed. The schools were demolished. 150 homes were lost. And the Wrangler Distribution Center, the town’s largest employer, was destroyed.
We knew if those critical jobs at Wrangler were not restored, there was little hope for saving this community.
The mayor, the county commissioners, local legislators, and our Alabama Development Office helped me with one common goal – saving the community.
And our teamwork paid off. Wrangler executives heard our message and agreed to not only rebuild in Hackleburg, but to expand from 150 jobs to 250 jobs for the community. I want to thank everyone for a job well done.
When I took office, I learned that despite our previous success in recruiting new industry to our state, we did not have a comprehensive, statewide economic development plan to guide our efforts. That’s why I created the Alabama Economic Alliance made up of economic development leaders from communities across Alabama.
Working together the Alliance has delivered a blueprint to drive our future efforts in the creation of jobs in eleven business sectors of the state.
The report recommended that we increase the number of prospect-ready sites across Alabama and it called for strengthening our workforce development programs.
All are worthy goals that we will implement this year.
We will also present an aggressive jobs agenda as a top priority in this Legislative Session and that will give our economic recruiters new tools to grow jobs in Alabama.
Our workers must continue to have the training they need to succeed in the jobs of the 21st century. That’s why I am proposing new investment in our workforce development and career tech programs.
And we will make sure any rule or regulation that stands in the way of economic development is eliminated. We will free our businesses from unnecessary, bureaucratic road blocks so that they can make better bottom line decisions that create jobs and economic opportunity.
I have been fortunate this year to spend time in communities across our state. A concern I have heard over and over is the need for better roads and bridges to lead to greater economic opportunities and to improve their quality of life for all our citizens.
Trucks, school buses, farm equipment must now be diverted in parts of our rural areas due to bridges that need repair. We have an obligation to preserve the roads we now have and fix our bridges.
We have the ability to finance a major infrastructure program. We will work with local leaders to identify what roads need repair and we will get them fixed as soon as possible. With the use of GARVEE Bonds we can achieve this without raising taxes or taking money from our state savings account. These can be issued as needs are identified.
If we are going to continue to grow jobs in Alabama, we must manage our money wisely.
That will require us to make difficult decisions in our state budgets.
We face a major funding shortfall in our General Fund. We have 25% less money to provide basic services.
We know what the federal government would do. They would print more money, borrow against our children’s future and drive up our national debt. That won’t ever happen in Alabama.
Early this morning at 4:30 there was a single mother who got up and went to work. She works hard everyday at her job serving the people in her community. On April 15th we expect her to send her taxes to Montgomery. And we’re expected to be good stewards of that money.
That’s exactly what we are going to do. And we are not going to raise her taxes. I promised the people of this state that I would not raise taxes on the people of Alabama, and I am going to keep my word.
I will oppose any effort to raise taxes on Alabama families, and I will veto any tax increase. The people of this state expect us to live within our means, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
Now, that means that we must prioritize the people’s money. We must first use that money to support critical state services that have a proven track record.
Passing balanced budgets that protect programs and fully funding critical state services will require the same kind of self-sacrifice and spirit that we saw in the wake of the April tornadoes.
In our General Fund, we will protect the Alabama Department of Public Safety. Nothing is more important than ensuring the safety of our citizens.
Our most vulnerable seniors and children depend on critical services from the Department of Human Resources. I want them to know we will protect them at every turn.
And in the budget I am recommending – we will not cut one penny from the Department of Corrections. Not one single prisoner will be set free due to a lack of funds.
Unfortunately, government always expands to meet the amount of money we have. We must make sure the opposite occurs.
We must reduce the size and scope of government and we have already begun this process.
I will propose legislation that consolidates a number of state agencies.
We will modernize outdated systems within state government by taking advantage of the latest technology to save 100 million dollars over 10 years.
We will streamline our licensing procedures which will produce greater efficiency and significant savings for taxpayers.
And that’s just the beginning.
I am committed, together with Lt. Governor Ivey, Speaker Hubbard and Senator Marsh, and our Legislature to making sure we reduce the size of government and make government more efficient. The people of this state deserve this. And the process of cutting, reducing and saving taxpayers money will never stop as long as I’m Governor.
In my education budget, the Alabama Reading Initiative, ACCESS Distance Learning, the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative, Advance Placement and our highly successful Pre K programs will all be protected. These are all proven programs that have helped our children achieve better results.
We know that the healthcare of our children is critical to their learning process. That is why I am proposing that we invest more of our education dollars in the well-being of our children. We will make sure children are ready to compete and learn, knowing that they have access to the health care services they need and deserve.
In education, we provide transportation to and from school for our children. If children aren’t in school they can’t learn. That’s why we will protect funds that provide transportation.
We also provide meals to our children who need them – sometimes twice a day. And everyone knows you cannot learn on an empty stomach. In the budget we are presenting, we will ensure no child goes hungry.
We also know a child cannot learn if they are sick. By investing more of our Education dollars in the health of our children, we will make sure that they are healthy and successful.
This year we are proposing an aggressive education agenda. In this global economy, our competitors aren’t just Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi. They are from all over the world. If we’re going to continue to recruit the jobs our people deserve, our workers cannot be just the best in the Southeast, or the best in the country. They have to be the best in the world. And that’s why, as a state, we have to constantly be looking for ways to improve how we educate our children.
We must begin by giving our existing public schools more flexibility. I will propose The School Flexibility Act of 2012, which will allow more decision-making at the local level. Working with the Legislative leadership, we will give local school systems the ability to develop their own innovative strategies, free from state or federal bureaucracy.
We must also allow parents a choice in how and where their child receives an education.
Every parent, regardless of how much money they have or where they live, should be given the chance for their child to attend an excellent school. We must give children every opportunity to live up to their full potential. Every child, and every parent, deserves nothing less.
No doubt you’ve heard a lot recently about Charter Schools, and you will hear a lot more in this Legislative Session. Charter schools are public schools.
The legislation we will propose would create a limited number of public charter schools to give parents a choice.
And we are going pass public charter school legislation in Alabama because our children and parents, and yes, teachers deserve a choice.
It’s time for all of us to stop pointing fingers and placing blame for the problems we face in education. It’s time we come together and lend a hand to find real solutions, because there is nothing we cannot solve by working together.
Working with State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice and his team, we will ensure that every child’s classroom and school is led by a highly effective, professional educator free to use their talents to create a stimulating and innovative learning environment in their own classroom.
I know that, many times, our teachers spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on their classrooms. Today, I propose a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for every teacher in this state who spends their money on their classroom.
The most important people in a child’s life are the ones who kiss them goodbye in the morning, and the one who spends the day with them in the classroom. We know that, other than their parents, nothing matters more to a child’s education than the effectiveness of his or her teacher. We cannot become the world’s best public education system without listening to our teachers and principals. We cannot reform education by ignoring educators.
That’s why I will form a “Teacher Cabinet”, made up of teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents. These leaders will provide my administration with unfiltered feedback on the needs of our public schools.
I want to hear directly from Muscle Shoals and Monroeville, Fort Payne and Fairhope, Decatur and Dothan, and all places in between, without the filter and spin of Montgomery lobbyists.
And as we’re talking about our teachers, I want to recognize two of the very best of the profession and the first two members of our Teacher Cabinet.
Dr. Gay Barnes teaches first grade at Horizon Elementary School in Madison. She is Alabama’s Teacher of the Year, and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year.
Jeremy Raper teaches Advanced Engineering and Honors Physics at Bob Jones High School. He is one of only 40 teachers in the country to receive the prestigious Milken Educator Award last year.
Both of these teachers represent the best among our educators in Alabama, and are great examples of the teachers we now have leading our students, and the type of teachers we want to continue to have leading in the classroom.
Dr. Barnes, Mr. Raper will you both please stand.
To improve the quality of life for all Alabamians, we have to improve our overall health. In every report detailing the health of our state – the news is not good. Alabama consistently is at the bottom of almost every health ranking including rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and infant mortality.
That is not acceptable.
I know we can do better. In Alabama there are countless organizations, agencies and programs all dedicated to improving the health of our people and we are thankful for their efforts. But it’s time we start producing real results that improve the lives of our people.
I will create a Health Alliance bringing all of these entities together at one table. Each one will have a clear mission and we will set goals for our state to reach.
When we all work together to improve the lives of Alabamians, we produce real results.
We saw how well this works with the Tornado Recovery Action Council, where a group of private citizens came together, listened to the people and produced twenty, common sense recommendations to better prepare our state for future disasters.
We’re facing some adversity right now. It’s a time that demands courageous leadership, and sacrifice. Those of us who serve in government learned during the spring of 2011 that there is no difficulty that the people of Alabama cannot overcome when we work together and put aside personal agendas for the greater good.
That is what we saw in the wave of generosity that swept across our state in the aftermath of April 27th. Volunteers came from far and wide to help from Franklin to DeKalb County, Calhoun to Winston County. Generous and caring groups from Auburn came to the aid of those in Tuscaloosa. That’s just the kind of spirit we need in our state to help solve all our problems.
We also see it in Carson Tinker. By now you may have heard Carson’s story.
One of the 62 tornadoes that tore across Alabama last spring ripped Carson’s house, and his life apart.
Carson was injured after being thrown 100 yards. He lost his home. And more importantly, like so many people across this state he lost someone he dearly loved.
What you may not realize is that Carson has the most thankless job in football. He snaps the ball on punts and field goals. He’s a Long snapper. No one will notice if he’s perfect. They’ll only notice if he’s made a mistake.
Despite his injuries, despite his personal tragedies, Carson didn’t make a single bad snap in his career. He did his job to perfection, and he helped his team achieve the ultimate goal.
Carson, would you please stand?
In these tough times, let’s follow the example of people like Carson Tinker.
Let’s pull together in the face of adversity, do our jobs to the best of our ability, and let’s serve the people who sent us here.
Last year the people of Alabama showed all of us how it should be done. They came together, worked hard, were unselfish and it didn’t matter who got credit.
The people didn’t elect us to be caretakers of state government. We are not here to protect the status quo.
We need to do everything we can to give people the opportunity to make their lives better, whether it’s in helping them get a good job, a good education or just being healthier. By working together we can make that happen.
When we leave our time in office, we want to leave Alabama a better place than when we arrived. That should be our purpose – and it should be the vision of everyone in this room.
God bless you. And may God bless the Great State of Alabama.
Governor announces $219,000 in grants for ALEA
A $168,975 grant will be used toward a federally mandated sexual offender registration and residency program, according to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced $219,764 in grants to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to bolster the state’s oversight of those convicted of sex offenses.
A $168,975 grant will be used toward a federally mandated sexual offender registration and residency program, according to Ivey’s office. Sexual offenders must register and report where they live after being convicted, and the funds will aid law enforcement officers in verifying those placed on the registry are meeting those requirements.
An additional $50,789 grant is to be used to transition to a more comprehensive crime reporting system by a federally mandated 2021 deadline, according to Ivey’s office.
The new system will provide more detail about crimes, including the type of weapons used and characteristics about the location of crime, such as if it occurred in a rural or urban area.
“Protecting communities from sexual predators and reporting accurate records of crime statistics are high priorities for all law enforcement in Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend ALEA for its commitment to making sure it stays in compliance with federal laws and working to close cases on known offenders.”
The U.S. Department of Justice grants will be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).
“ADECA joins Gov. Ivey in supporting ALEA’s efforts to protect our communities from sexual predators and to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share vital information with each other,” the director of ADECA, Kenneth Boswell, said in a statement.
Opinion | Clorox, anyone?
There is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the upcoming legislative session safely — not even a rudimentary one.
In less than 100 days, the state Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2021 Legislative Session. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the session safely — not even a rudimentary one.
But perhaps there is a reason to keep the statehouse shuttered as the Legislature seems to have forgotten the governing principles that the nation was built upon, and (hint, hint) it was never a slogan.
One individual at the Statehouse said that there would be a vaccine by February, so why worry about holding Session as usual. Perhaps this individual also believes that a disinfectant cure or a UV light remedy is right around the corner. News flash, as of press time, intravenous Clorox and lightbulb suppositories are still in phase one trials.
Pandemic humor aside, the surprising thing would be if the Legislature actually had a plan at all.
There have been rumors of a plan, even mentions of one, too, but nothing that would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public to realistically gather to conduct the peoples’ business in a relatively COVID-free environment.
We all want a miracle, but miracles are outside legislative purview, and while prayer is needed at the Statehouse, so is commonsense and a plan.
One plan in consideration is to limit the number of people who can enter the building. That’s a bad idea because the public has a right to witness government action and advocate for causes.
At the end of the truncated 2020 session, the Legislature curtailed the number of people in the Statehouse, which violates the law and good government spirit.
Lawmakers come to Montgomery to do the peoples’ business — at least that’s what they say at campaign events and pancake breakfasts. Of course, they don’t really conduct the people’s business in Montgomery. That’s just a figure of speech.
Legislators represent the people when they are running for office or giving chats at Rotary, but when most — not all — enter the Statehouse, they work for special interests.
Yes, some do care, and all are convinced they are doing a great job, but just like the plan to open the Statehouse safely on Feb. 3, it’s sadly an absurd pretense.
The majority of the Legislature consists of Republicans, who used to have a firm sense of what the party represented. While I hate to offend my many friends, the current party couldn’t find the most defining principles of traditional governance in our nation if you gave them a GPS and a flashlight.
Let me humbly run down a short list of things that should matter in no particular order.
For the list, I will turn to the 2006 book American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: “Classical liberalism is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the press, and international peace based on free trade.”
Classical liberalism has nothing to do with modern liberalism and everything to do with our Republic’s founding. Classical liberalism underpins the Constitution’s foundation, Federalist Papers and the vast majority of the founding generation’s ideology, which created our nation’s governing structure.
Private property rights are fundamental to what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness.
And guess what is an individual’s most precious piece of property? Their person. Yes, a person’s body and mind are an individual’s greatest possession. A person’s right to live freely with only a minimum amount of government intrusion is essential to happiness. The government’s job is not to tell us how to live, rather keep others from harming us, killing us or taking our stuff.
Every year Montgomery seems intent on an ever-expanding agenda to meddle in people’s private lives.
Real estate and other property is significant but can’t be thoroughly enjoyed if we are dead or in chains designed by the good intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers are not to be the central planning committee for the soul.
The government should promote a relatively unhampered market economy. Tariffs anyone? Trade wars? No one wins a trade war. Everyone loses. Winning simply means the other side lost more or gives up. It’s like a bar fight. Nobody wins it because everyone gets beaten up — but one got it worse.
How about the rule of law? I hear it talked about a lot, but the law must be just for everyone. If the law is applied unequally, is it really the law?
We hear a lot about Second Amendment rights as if that’s the big one. But what about freedom of the press? Is that less important? As the nation’s second president John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
The press is not the enemy of the people. Is there bias? Sometimes. Is there poor reporting? On occasion. But the real enemy are the politicians who defame or attempt to delegitimize the media for not supporting their political agenda. An AR-15 can be coercive but have a free county without a free press in impossible.
Freedom of religion is also paramount to our nation’s principles as free people have a right to worship without government interference or mandate. But believe me, some religious leaders would see a government-imposed religion as long as it’s the one they like. I often wonder, does religion require a strong man or strong faith? Today it’s hard to tell. Like all rights, if you take away the freedom to worship or not, and the whole system of liberty fails.
Last but not least, international peace based on free trade: If a nation is making money by trading with another country, it doesn’t have a good reason to bomb it. Likewise, the bounds of capital are generally stronger than political ideology. Money may not make the world go ’round, but a lack of it sure can unleash terrible conflict.
After this exercise in futility, I’ve decided I’m glad the Legislature doesn’t have a plan to open the 2021 session. Why bother? Because the very ideals that genuinely make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality are the ones at greatest risk of being trampled upon by the Legislature.
Opinion | A gruesome murder should point Montgomery in a new direction
The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either.
The facts of 17-year-old Luna Pantaleon’s death are hard to stomach. The Montgomery teen was beaten with a metal pole and left to drown in a ditch. Her face was so badly beaten, with so many facial fractures, that the exact cause of her death couldn’t immediately be identified.
Her alleged killers are three 16-year-old girls. They reportedly went to McDonald’s after the murder and had smoothies.
Those details were provided during a court hearing on Wednesday as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser. They are enough to cause you to pause while reading to take a deep breath. But these details are not the only ones that should get attention.
The testimony of a Montgomery police detective who investigated the crime, and who interviewed the three girls who have essentially admitted to the crime, provided other disturbing details that paint a picture of the lives of Montgomery’s underprivileged youth — lives filled with violence and firearms, with late-night fights and “hits” put out on houses by 10th graders.
This reality for many young people in Montgomery isn’t exactly a hidden secret.
I can’t tell you the number of homeless teenagers I spoke with or tried to help while in Montgomery. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with middle schoolers who were in gangs, and who spoke openly about carrying handguns and other semi-automatic weapons.
Don’t get me wrong. Montgomery is not the wild west, and every poor, Black person in the city isn’t part of a gang or spending their nights shooting at each other.
But there is a level of violence and bad behavior that is growing and taking root in many communities. And it is happening because too many young people in those communities see no other viable alternatives.
A never ending cycle of poverty and despair — a cycle that has lasted, in some cases, for multiple generations — has left them turning to other means of getting by, of finding love and acceptance, of finding guidance no matter how misguided that guidance might be.
And every bit of it can be traced back to one problem: education. Or, in Montgomery’s case, the lack of it.
Segregation was common in all of Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s, but few cities in America clung to it as tightly as Montgomery did. When the Brown v. Board decision came down, private schools in Montgomery started to pop up — at one point a record number of them. And as the population grew, so too did the cities and the school systems surrounding Montgomery.
In 2020, Montgomery’s private schools are more than 90 percent white. Montgomery’s public schools are more than 95 percent Black. Those numbers have not changed much over the years.
But even more problematic is that Montgomery’s public schools are also serving a disproportionate amount of low-income students. That most of the poor people in Montgomery happen to be Black is a simple byproduct of the racism that saw Black citizens denied work, denied decent business loans, denied home loans for certain areas and denied acceptance into most state universities.
And having a high number of low-income students means fewer resources, fewer involved parents and more students who struggle through no fault of their own, because working parents weren’t home to help with homework, or they don’t have internet service. It goes on and on and on.
Now, repeat those problems for a few generations. And, well, you get the idea.
Exacerbating the problem for Montgomery, though, is a screwed up funding structure that has left its schools funded at the state’s lowest allowable levels. There will be an opportunity for Montgomery residents to fix that during Tuesday’s election by voting to increase property tax rates in the county.
It is money that is desperately needed. But that money alone will not solve the issues. Because we’re way too far down the line at this point for a few dollars to fix what’s broken in Montgomery.
It’s going to take the entire community putting aside their differences and their finger-pointing and their hate and actually working towards solving the problems, instead of just constantly pointing them out. It’s going to require a bunch of people to stop believing that skin color somehow makes a child less worthy of a quality education or more likely to be a criminal.
Mayor Steven Reed and several others have done a remarkable job to this point bringing together groups of people who have historically opposed any tax increases for the schools. He’s going to have to build on that goodwill going forward.
Because while more money will certainly make a difference, it won’t put a parent in place. It won’t assure kids are getting quality medical care and mental health care. It won’t put food on the table at night or turn the broadband on.
There will need to be more education options opened up for adults. There will need to be more comprehensive options available in some communities. This will take time and money, and it won’t be easy.
But here’s the one thing I know: the overwhelming majority of people in this world, and in Montgomery, want to succeed. They want to take care of themselves and their children. They want their kids to receive a decent education. They want a good job and to pay their bills and sleep easy at night.
If you show them a pathway to such a life, they will take it.
The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either. But passing this tax increase, and the community-wide dedication to this cause that it represents, is a damn fine start.
Sen. Doug Jones addresses Auburn students
Republican Tommy Tuberville was also invited to participate, but declined.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, addressed Auburn University students at a forum on the university’s campus on Wednesday.
“I am a Democratic candidate, but I am an Alabama senator, and that is what I have tried to be since I have been here,” Jones said. “I promised I would work across the aisle.”
Jones said that he has sponsored 22 bipartisan bills that have been signed by President Donald Trump.
Jones and his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, were both invited to address the Auburn College Democrats and the Auburn College Republicans in what the two college groups hoped would have been a debate between the two Senate candidates, but Tuberville declined to participate.
“I really appreciate the Auburn College Democrats and especially the Auburn College Republicans for inviting me,” Jones said. “I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here. I think it is important that people see two candidates side by side answering the same questions.”
Tonight was about the future, and from where I’m standing it looks incredibly bright. Thank you to the @AUCDems and @AuburnCR for such an incredible event. These students asked thoughtful and pointed questions. @TTuberville those war damn eagles would have given you some hell. pic.twitter.com/7yGAFH3FfU
— Doug Jones (@DougJones) October 29, 2020
“What you are seeing in the ads that are attacking me are simply not true,” Jones said.
Jones said that he does not support defunding the police, taking guns from Americans who like to hunt, and he does not favor abortion all the way to the point of birth.
“I have been a strong advocate for our military,” Jones said. “I have been a strong advocate for farmers. Even though I do not serve on the Agriculture Committee, I have done more for Alabama farmers than any senator has done since Howell Heflin, who was on the Agriculture Committee.”
The students asked Jones what he thought his greatest accomplishment in the Senate was.
“That would be ending the Military Widow’s Tax,” Jones said.
Jones explained that the Military Widows tax only affects about 2,000 people In Alabama, but it is a big deal for those military families. When a serviceman is killed, the Pentagon pays a stipend to the surviving spouse. Many soldiers also purchased insurance for the possibility that they would not survive their service.
Instead of paying both the survivor’s benefit and the insurance benefit, the VA previously subtracted the insurance benefit from the VA death stipend. The widows were only getting about 55 cents on the dollar of what they had expected. Every year, the Gold Star wives came to Washington and asked for that change in the law, and every year, Senators would pat them on the back and then choose finances over repealing the tax and doing what was right, Jones said.
For 27 years, the Gold Star widows had made this a priority and nothing got done. Jones did not know about this until he got to the Senate, but when he found out, he reached across the aisle and sponsored a bill with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to end the tax.
Eventually the bill had 82 co-sponsors, and it got passed.
“It is not the voting rights act, it is not the civil rights act, but for those widows, it meant $1,200 a month,” Jones said.
The students also asked Jones what his greatest mistake was.
“Voting for Bill Barr,” Jones said on confirming William Barr as Trump’s attorney general. “I was so disappointed. I feel sorry for Jeff Sessions. I disagree with him on a number of policy issues, but I don’t think that he deserved the hits he was taking. I knew Bill Barr from his previous service. I thought he would be an independent voice, and he hasn’t.”
“I voted on the best information I had, and I was wrong on Barr,” Jones said. “I can defend every vote that I made. What I do in the United Senate is not about politics it is about service.”
Jones was asked if he favored ending the filibuster when Democrats win control of the Senate.
“No, I have too much respect for the Senate,” Jones said. “I don’t think Joe Biden will do that — at least he won’t start that way. He has too much respect for the history of the Senate as an institution. I want to try to get the Senate back to the way it was.”
The students asked if he favored the Democrats using their new power to adjust the number of judges on the Supreme Court.
“Nope,” Jones replied. “This goes back to the filibuster. We can’t start tearing down institutions because we don’t like some decision they make.”
Jones said that many Americans wanted to do the same thing when the court seemed to liberal with the Warren Court in the 1960s.
“Right now packing the court is not something I would be in favor of,” Jones added. “At the end of the day, you never know what is going to happen.”
“We always talk about I just want the courts to call balls and strikes, but it is not a baseball game,” Jones said. “Intelligent people disagree about the law and the rule of law.”
“The goal is to find common ground,” Jones said. “Frankly, Tommy Tuberville cannot do that. A football coach is trained to beat the other side — not work with them. On the radio, he calls them communists and socialists. I have two and a half years of working with them. He can’t do it. It is not about good and evil, and we need to stop thinking in those terms.”
The students asked if farmers should be given some relief from new regulations on the environment.
“I have been a huge proponent of agriculture,” Jones said. “The current USDA has been helping the biggest farmers and not Alabama farmers. The tariff wars hurt the Alabama farmer.”
“It is going to be a challenge to work it out,” Jones said. “It is in their best interests that we do something about the climate. I believe the science and so do farmers.”
Jones urged everyone to have faith in scientists.
“Trust them please,” Jones said. “One of the most frustrating things I see these days — and we see it in climate and I see it in the pandemic — is that we have got to trust our scientists.”
Jones said that is true of both the climate and the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have consistently said don’t believe what politicians say about this pandemic not unless they are repeating what the scientists say,” Jones said. “This next six months could very well be worse than the past six months.”
“We have got to trust them,” Jones said of the scientists. “If the doctors at the FDA approve the vaccine, I will trust the vaccine. We need to listen to the scientists at the FDA, the CDC, the NIH, at UAB, and what the companies say about the vaccine.”
Jones was asked what could be done to prevent Russia, China and Iran from interfering in our elections.
“We have the technology to do it, we have the will to do it, but we need an administration who will do it, and If you think I am knocking the Trump Administration, I am,” Jones said.
Jones was asked how we can move beyond partisanship.
“It is a lot more partisan outside of D.C. than in D.C.” Jones said. “People vote for partisanship. It is your vote that will change it. Your generation can change it. You need to tell your leaders that we want to hear issues, we want to hear politics.”
Jones said that he favored delisting marijuana from the banned drug list and making it legal for people with legal marijuana to cross state lines without going to jail for it. Jones was asked what we can do to fight the opioid crisis.
“We can’t prosecute your way out of it, though there is a role there with the prosecution of doctors for running pill mills,” Jones said. The civil lawsuits against drug manufacturers is a start, he said, and leaders need to be doing a better job of educating people. Mental healths should also be a priority, he said.
“There is a reason that people have to stand up and say ‘Black lives matter,’” Jones said, saying that too many Black people, particularly Black men, are killed by police.
On trade, Jones said that he is not an isolationist. “We (Alabama) need those foreign markets. We are an exporting state. We are the third largest exporter of automobiles in the country.”
Students asked Jones if he favored repealing the Patriot Act.
“I don’t think that is going to come up,” Jones said. “When it comes up for renewal, we will tweak it. I have had concerns about it, but at the end of the day that is something that we have to constantly monitor. We will not repeal it.”
Jones predicted that debate on health care will “dominate the next Congress.”
“I am very concerned about what we are going to do about health care if the ACA is declared unconstitutional,” Jones said, also reiterating his support for expanding Medicaid in Alabama. “The state made a huge mistake when it did not expand Medicaid,” he said. “I am not for Medicare for All, but I do think that there should be a public option.”
Jones was asked about the governor’s plan to lease and build three new so-called “mega-prisons.”
“The Trump administration really issued a scathing report on the state’s prisons, that really surprised me,” Jones said. “I don’t like privatizing the prisons or the post office. We had convict labor in this country for a long time, and it was horrible.”
Jones said solving the state’s prison problems requires money, and nobody wants to raise taxes. “Everybody wants to lock them up, but it costs money.”
The next president, whether it is Trump for a second term or his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is getting a $27.2 trillion debt plus a coronavirus stimulus package at the end of this month that may make it close to $30 trillion by inauguration. APR asked if there is going to be a plan put in place to prevent the national debt from surpassing $40 trillion by the end of this decade.
“We have got to get out of this crisis first,” Jones said. “George W. Bush spent trillions fighting wars without paying for them while cutting taxes, and this president has done the same thing, and now those tax cuts are coming home to roost.”
“I am not going to start looking at this until after the coronavirus crisis is over,” Jones said. “Part of the reason that revenues are down is because people are not working and paying taxes. If we don’t get this solved, we could end up owing $50 trillion.”
Due to coronavirus concerns and maintaining the proper social distancing, Wednesday’s event was limited to just five news reporters. Jones told reporters that he is running neck-in-neck with Tuberville approaching Tuesday’s election.
“I am not going to guarantee a win, and I am not going to guarantee that we are not going to win,” Jones said.
Polls open on Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. CST. You must have a valid photo ID in order to participate.