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2014 State of the State Address

Governor Robert Bentley

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By Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

Lt. Governor Ivey, Speaker Hubbard, President Marsh, distinguished guests, members of the Alabama Legislature, Chief Justice Moore, justices of the Alabama Supreme Court – and my fellow Alabamians:

The poorest county in the United States of America is located just 73 miles from where we sit tonight. If we were to drive a little over an hour from this historic hall we would find ourselves in Wilcox County where the median household income is below that of any other county in this nation. 11-thousand of our fellow Alabamians live in Wilcox County where the unemployment rate is chronically in double digits and consistently ranks above the national average.

Everyone in this room knows Alabama is one of the poorest states in America, where one in four children live in poverty. Nearly 1-million of our fellow Alabamians are dependent on food stamps.

The statistics are sobering. The facts are indisputable. Never ending cycles of a need for jobs, better job skills and better education, plague our communities, counties and state as they have for years.

We recognize the challenges that we face and we resolve to reverse the trends that have troubled our state for decades.

Alabama is truly a great state. It’s a state filled with hard working people, people who want to provide well for their families, seek to live freely and are driven to care for their neighbors, friends and communities.

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Good people live here.

And we must all serve them and offer them a greater opportunity to prosper if we are to ever see our state rise from the depths of deficiency.

We will never see an end to the plague of poverty by offering a deeper dependence on a flawed government system. We will never help our poorest citizens, or our future generations by casting over them the net of federal government giveaway programs.

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We can break the cycle of poverty, but not with programs that drag our communities and our people into the downward spiral of dependence.

That is why we will not expand on a flawed and broken system that encourages greater reliance, not on self, but on government, pulling even more of our vulnerable citizens into what President Ronald Reagan called the “spider’s web of dependency.”

We will help no one if we continually make decisions that ultimately offer little hope for our citizens while driving this great nation deeper into debt.

There is never freedom for the breadwinner who is dependent on the government.

Freedom is only found in the land that offers opportunity. That comes from hard work and sacrifice.

The people of Alabama deserve the opportunity to find a job that pays well – more than enough than to just make ends meet.

Our hard-working neighbors deserve an opportunity to acquire the skills needed to get a great job that pays well.

An opportunity for their children to receive a quality education even at an early age so they have a fighting chance to compete in school.

An opportunity for a lifeline out of the cycle of poverty and dependence by a government that doesn’t solve problems with more spending, but with saving the taxpayer’s money. That opportunity is here.

In Alabama.

It continues to grow and is available to anyone who seeks to find it.

Opportunity is being found in over 40-thousand new, future Alabama jobs that have been created since I became your Governor. These are the higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs that offer families a steady income, not just a wage. These are jobs that are waiting to be filled in brand new manufacturing plants being built as we speak.

One-thousand Alabamians are finding that opportunity in Mobile where Airbus has invested $600-million dollars to produce the first A320 family aircraft at its ultramodern facility once it is completed in 2015.

Boeing is building one of its five research facilities in Huntsville where the aerospace giant will bring up to 400 more high paying jobs.

900 more people are working this year assembling Montgomery-made Hyundai vehicles, which account for more than half of the company’s record breaking sales.

1400 new jobs are coming to Tuscaloosa’s Mercedes plant to produce two new models. 600 more jobs have been added at their new logistics hub.

Toyota is expanding its Huntsville engine plant, the only location in the world where the automaker produces four-cylinder, V6 and V8 engines.

In Lincoln last spring, Honda launched mass production of its 2014 Acura MDX sport utility vehicle, the first time the automaker has assembled a vehicle from its luxury line in the state.

Word is spreading far and wide that Alabama is a great place for companies to do business.

There are over 60 Japanese companies in Alabama.  Two months ago I had the opportunity to travel there to recruit more jobs and strengthen relationships with Japan’s biotech industry.

During the trip, I sat on the bus next to the CEO of Otsuka, the parent company of Pharmavite in Lee County.  I told him about UAB and Southern Research Institute, and the work they do in the fields of bio-tech research. As a result next week, Otsuka will be meeting with those institutions to explore ways they can work together in the research and development of new products.

Companies, like Otsuka, have quickly recognized, as others have, that we have a positive business climate and that our job training program is second to none.

But without doubt our greatest asset for any industry is our workforce, the men and women of this state who get up every day and go to work to produce, build and develop a product, a good or a service that is Made in Alabama.

I have seen for myself the pride, skill and dedication of the men and women who work in Alabama’s industries as I’ve traveled across this state on our Road to Economic Recovery Tours.

In Fayette, I saw workers weld together dump truck beds.

In Clarke County I watched as skilled craftsmen carved out church pews, and I saw workers in Franklin County assemble motor homes known the world over.

And at Hyundai, they now work around the clock to meet the world’s growing appetite for Alabama-made cars. Montgomery workers broke the facility’s monthly production record three times last year.

Watching these men and women work on the assembly line, I have never been more convinced the best workforce in the country is right here in Alabama.

And nothing is more important to me than making sure there are well-paying jobs for our people.

Alabama has seen remarkable job growth since I took office in 2011. Between January 2011 and last November, Alabama saw an increase of 59,400 jobs.  That is in addition to those 40-thousand new future jobs we’ve created.

Companies have invested over $5-billion dollars in our state.

And unemployment in Alabama has dropped to a five year low, and now stands at 6.2 percent, the lowest rate in the deep south*

Alabama once again ranks among the top five states for doing business – for the fourth year in a row.

But we must not stop here. We have to keep working to make sure we are doing all we can to not only help people find jobs, but also help businesses continue to create those jobs, especially the nearly 400-thousand small businesses in the state.

That is why I am creating the Small Business Advisory Council to address specific needs of Alabama’s small businesses. Nearly half of Alabama’s private sector workforce is found in small businesses.

The Small Business Advisory Council will focus on making sure they have the resources and support needed to not only grow their business, but to create well-paying jobs for the people of this state.

We must create greater opportunity for Alabamians to acquire the skills needed for higher-paying jobs. Companies are looking for and jobs are waiting for skilled workers.

In Athens, TR Electrical is a small family-owned company I visited last year. Business is good, but to keep up with demand, they need more skilled electricians.

That’s why we created the Governor’s College and Career Ready Task Force. We brought together leaders in the fields of business, industry and education to develop ideas to help prepare students for a career.

The Task Force recently presented a number of recommendations that will result in a constant supply of high school and college graduates who have the skills industries and businesses such as TR Electrical want.

We will present legislation creating a Statewide Workforce Council of business and industry leaders who will advise educators and colleges on the workforce needs on the types of jobs needed in each region.

We will expand the number of Career Coaches. We will expand Dual Enrollment Programs, so that students may attend high school and a 2-year college at the same time.  We will also develop a marketing campaign and put a greater emphasis on teaching essential skills.

Once implemented this program will improve high school graduation rates and increase the number of higher-skilled workers.

From North Alabama to South Alabama, we have positioned ourselves for what I believe will be tremendous growth for generations to come.

At the Gulf Coast we will build a lodge and meeting facility and improve the Gulf State Park for all the people of Alabama to enjoy, with funds we secured from a portion of the BP Oil Settlement.

In North-Central Alabama we will soon begin the study and research of one of this state’s greatest energy resources. 7-point-5 billion barrels of oil are located on the surface and sub-surface in North-Central Alabama, in the form of oil sands.  This year we will create the Alabama Oil Sands Program at the Geological Survey and Oil and Gas Board to further study this potentially rich resource.

Each of Alabama’s 67 counties has been given the opportunity to recruit more jobs, thanks to the largest road and bridge improvement program ever conducted in the state. When companies look for places to build, expand and hire more people, they look for places that have good infrastructure.

The Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, ATRIP – along with its companion program, the Rural Assistance Match Program, known as RAMP are making over one-billion dollars available to counties and cities, and allowing much-needed road and bridge projects to move forward.

Today more than one thousand road and bridge improvement projects are underway or soon will be because of ATRIP and RAMP.

Alabamians elected us, and have expected us to operate their state government more efficiently, and to live within our means. When we entered office in 2011, our state was broke.   We took a serious look at all areas of state government to identify savings.

Thanks to the hard work of Lieutenant Governor Ivey, Speaker Hubbard, President Marsh and the Legislature, we made history in the state of Alabama.

Tonight I’m proud to tell the hard working people of this state that we did what we set out to do. In just three years’ time, we have reduced this state’s bureaucracy at the third fastest pace of any other state in this nation  – and saved our taxpayers over one billion dollars.

We also remain steadfastly committed to paying off our debts.

One year ago, I stood here and promised I would sign legislation to pay back millions of dollars the people allowed us to borrow from the Alabama Trust Fund. That transfer allowed us to prop up lack of funding in the state’s General Fund, kept Alabamians working, and enabled us to continue to provide essential government services.

That was the first bill passed by this Legislature, and I signed it.

And in October, because of conservative budgeting and an improving economy, we made substantial progress in our commitment to paying off millions of dollars still owed to the Education Trust Fund’s Rainy Day Account.

We must keep our word to the people of this state, and we must pay our debts.

And that’s exactly what we are going to do.

Debt is one of the greatest threats to our country today.

Our nation is now buckling under the weight of a federal government that has continued to take on debilitating debt. We’ve opened the doors of dependency programs to millions.

Our nation is an overloaded ship, slowly sinking as even more passengers come on board.

Exactly fifty years ago, this nation’s President declared a war on poverty, with sweeping new legislation aimed at lowering the poverty rate in this country.

But this war did little to liberate its people. The national poverty rate now stands at 15-percent*, and has changed very little over the last 50 years. In Alabama, the poverty rate is even higher, with some counties as high as 36-percent.

This war gave our country a new set of federal government-run programs, intended to offer assistance, or a safety net for Americans who are struggling. Those programs today have grown, expanded and have become a lumbering giant threatening our nation’s economic stability, national security and the very freedom of our people.

The Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare and Medicaid expansion is taking our nation deeper into the abyss of debt, and threatens to dismantle what I believe is one of the most trusted relationships, that of doctors and their patient.

Essential to Obamacare is Medicaid expansion – a federal government dependency program for the uninsured, which is administered by states.  Since 1980, Medicaid spending has increased nationally by over 1500-percent.

Here in Alabama, Medicaid takes up 35% of our General Fund.

Under Obamacare, Medicaid would grow even larger – bringing millions more people to a state of dependency on government, and saddling our state and our nation – the taxpayers – with the enormous expense.

Here in Alabama alone, an estimated 300-thousand more people would be added to the Medicaid role, to a system that by our own admission is absolutely broken and flawed.

The federal government has said they will give us money to expand.

But how can we believe the federal government will keep its word?

The anything but Affordable Care Act has done nothing to gain our trust.

First, they told us we could keep our doctor – that turned out not to be true.

Next, they told us we could keep our policy – that’s not true.

Then they told us our premiums would not go up – nothing could be further from the truth.
Now they are telling us we’ll get free money to expand Medicaid.

Ladies and Gentlemen, nothing is free. The money the federal government is spending with wild abandon is not federal dollars – those are your dollars, your hard-earned tax dollars.

There is no difference between federal money and your money.

Our great nation is 17-point-2 trillion dollars in debt and it increases by 2-billion dollars every single day.

That is why I cannot expand Medicaid in Alabama. We will not bring hundreds of thousands into a system that is broken and buckling.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is everything but Affordable.

There are 18 new taxes embedded in Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, which will cost you an estimated 800-billion dollars in the next 8 years.

It is draining our state budgets, and will siphon millions of dollars from our education budget by 2016 – that’s money that could have been spent on teachers, students and support personnel.

It does not protect patients. 22-percent of primary care doctors account for 90-percent of primary care billing. If we were to add 300-thousand to Medicaid – where would they receive care?

Already in Alabama, because of Obamacare, over 87-thousand people have seen a change in their coverage, and you or someone you know has likely seen your premiums double.

Business and job growth is being stifled. Employers are leaving positions unfilled, or laying off workers so they can fall under the employee threshold that would require them to participate in Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, or face penalties.

Do we have a problem with accessible health care in this country? Yes, we do. But putting 300-thousand more people into a broken system that will cost taxpayers billions and drive up this nation’s debt is not the answer.

That is why we are reforming Medicaid in Alabama today to make it more efficient, and more effective to produce better outcomes.

We are giving it back to the people, developing it from the ground up to serve the people of this state to care for the most vulnerable, the poor and the disabled.

With Legislation passed last year we are establishing regional care organizations, which will use community-based, managed care to improve the health of those on Medicaid, and lowering the cost to taxpayers.

These reforms will serve three groups: patients who are receiving care, providers who are working to manage patient care and the taxpayers of the State of Alabama who are paying the bill.  Patients will receive higher-quality care, providers will offer the best management of that care, and the taxpayers will have a better product at a lower cost.

When I was still practicing medicine, I saw anyone who needed care. I would travel to some of the most impoverished counties in West Alabama and spend a day seeing and caring for patients. If they did not have the money to pay, I would not charge them. Many times, I would buy medications for those who could not afford to buy their prescriptions. As a practicing physician, I would never want anything to come between me and my patient – especially the federal government. I am licensed by the state of Alabama, not the federal government, and we will always keep it that way.

I am a physician who cared for all my patients regardless of their ability to pay, but I have another role to play now. I am also your Governor, and I have to be concerned for our state. Our country is made up of fifty sovereign states, and as one of its Governors I cannot sit by and watch our country continue down the path it is on, while our nation is drowning in 17-point-2 trillion dollars in debt.

The administration in Washington and the debt it continues to build will sink this country.

It is ok to question the federal government. As a matter of fact, it is our duty. It is my duty and that’s exactly what I am doing.

The tenth amendment to our great Constitution gives us that authority.

Government cannot grow unless we give it permission to grow.

If states do not stand firm and say “no more,” there will be no one left to stop the out of control spending in Washington.

I love Alabama. And I love America. If we continue down this path, the America our founding fathers envisioned will no longer exist. Gone will be the promise that was once based on opportunity, independence and individual liberties.

Nearly 1 million people in Alabama are on Medicaid. It is not my goal to put more people on Medicaid but to have less. It is not my intent to put able-bodied individuals on a government dependency program.

We will encourage our people with the opportunity for education and employment. It will not happen overnight, but I truly believe where there is opportunity and training for higher paying, higher skilled jobs, there is greater capacity for independence and less people will be dependent on government.

There is no greater opportunity we can give an Alabama child in poverty than a chance to excel in school. So many of our children need this opportunity – but too few have access to it.

The earlier they begin receiving a quality education, the better chance they have at success.

Alabama is home to one of the nation’s top Pre-k programs. Last year, we opened 100 new pre-k sites, and I can tell you, Pre-k is making a real difference in the lives of Alabama’s children.

First Class Pre-K children consistently miss fewer days of school, they are less likely to need special education services and are less often retained than those children who are not in Pre-k.

Third-graders who were in pre-k scored at 100% reading proficiency. But the most significant result of children in pre-k is the impact on those who live in poverty from low-income families. Pre-k closed the achievement gap for lower income students by as much as 29%.

Because of these proven results, I am including more funding for voluntary pre-k in my budget, so that we can once again expand.

Nothing is more important to a child’s education than his or her teacher.

I truly appreciate the sacrifices our teachers have made.

Last year, Alabama teachers received a 2 percent increase in pay.

This year, I am proposing another 2 percent increase for teachers and support personnel.

State employees have also made sacrifices that have enabled us to balance our budgets.

That is why I lifted the merit pay freeze on state employees two weeks ago. We are still optimistic and if the money is available, we will propose a conditional pay raise up to 4% for state employees.

We have assembled in this chamber tonight, marking the beginning of another session of the Alabama Legislature. And most of us in this room have one thing in common: We have been chosen by the men and women of this state to serve our fellow citizens.

We have been elected, chosen and charged with the task of making our state better than it was when we first came into office. We have been placed here to create an opportunity, not just for the men and women of one county or one district, but for the over 4-million Alabamians who make our state so great.

Wilcox County, Alabama – the poorest county in the United States hasn’t seen a new major industry since man set foot on the moon.

When I became your Governor, I had one goal in my mind. I truly wanted to help all the people of this state – especially in disadvantaged areas, such Wilcox County.

My first week in office, I met with Golden Dragon Copper Tubing, and recruited that company not just to our state – but the area that included Pine Hill in Wilcox County.

In a few weeks Golden Dragon will begin production in its brand new 100-million dollar plant.

Working there will be a man named William Ausbon. William lives 10 minutes from the plant, in Pine Hill. He lost his job in October 2012. For one year he was another statistic, another percentage point in Wilcox County’s high unemployment rate.

Then Golden Dragon started hiring, and a year later William got a job, a really good job. I am honored that William and his wife Toshika are here tonight as my and Dianne’s special guest.  I would like for you to meet him.

Up to 500 people will soon get a job at GD Copper, like William. 500 families in the nation’s poorest area now have a new opportunity at a much better way of life.

This is our role, to create an environment where there is an opportunity for people to get a good job, to train and get the skills they need, to get a good education at an early age and to continually encourage people to break free of the bondage of dependency, to stand on their own two feet, and we do this by giving them an opportunity for and the satisfaction of having a job.

William is why I am here. He is who I work for.  Alabamians just like him are why we are all here. We should never forget that.

God Bless you.  And God Bless The Great State of Alabama.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Primaries next week

Steve Flowers

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Folks, our primaries are next week!  On the Democratic side, the Presidential Preference Primary will be the big show and will be interesting to watch.  On the right, the Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate Seat will be the marquee event.

In addition to the Senate Race, you have two open Republican Congressional Seats in the First and Second Districts. You also have some important statewide Supreme Court and Appellate Court races on the ballot.

Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Greg Shaw and Shelby County State Senator Cam Ward, are both running to be the Republican nominee for the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, place number one.

Shaw is one of the most introverted, dignified people that ever ran for statewide office. He takes his role as a monk-like non-talking judge to heart. He has not and will not campaign. He thinks it is beneath the jurist to talk to people, much less campaign or shake hands.

On the other hand, Senator Cam Ward is the ultimate people person and campaigner. Ward has worked the state from one end to the other, campaigning in every nook and cranny and county. He has outworked Shaw 20 to 1. However, ultimately in today’s statewide politics, it all boils down to money.

Ninety-five percent of the people who vote next Tuesday will not decide or think about who they are going to vote for until next week. Then after they vote and elect one of them, they will not be able to tell you who they voted for or for that matter who is on the Supreme Court.  This one will be interesting and probably close. Whoever gets the most votes Tuesday will be sworn in for a six-year term in January. Winning the GOP nomination for a judgeship in Alabama is tantamount to election in the Heart of Dixie.

Two Jefferson/Shelby metro candidates are vying for a seat on the Court of Civil Appeals. State Representative Matt Fridy and Phillip Bahakel are vying for place number 2 on the Civil Appeals Court.

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The presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, Mary Windom, should waltz to re-election. However, Criminal Appeals Judge Beth Kellum, who has done an excellent job, could have a tougher race with two opponents.

PSC President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh has an alsoran liberal candidate in her race.

The winners of the March 3 GOP Primary or runoff on March 31 will win the 1st and 2nd congressional districts and go to Washington for 2 years.

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The fist district Mobile/Baldwin race is the best and most up in the air. It is a three man race between former State Senator Bill Hightower, Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, and Mobile State Representative Chris Pringle. It will be interesting to see which two make the March 31 runoff.

Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman is the front runner to win the open 2nd Congressional district seat. The question is can he win without a runoff. It may be difficult with seven people in the race. He will ultimately win.

As earlier stated the GOP contest for the U.S. Senate is the marquee event on the scene next week. Jeff Sessions is the favorite to win back his seat. However, it will not be a cakewalk. It is doubtful he can win without a runoff. It is a spirited and close race between Coach Tommy Tuberville and Congressman Bradley Byrne to get into the runoff with Sessions. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore has done very little campaigning and will probably get less than 10 perfect of the vote.

All indications point to former Vice President Joe Biden winning our Democratic Presidential Primary. Over 75 percent of the votes cast in our Alabama Democratic Primary will be by African American voters, and Biden has received overwhelming endorsements from almost all of the African American hierarchy and leadership groups in the State. In addition, the two leading African American Democratic Leaders, Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, have endorsed Biden.

However, Joe Reed’s powerful Alabama Democratic Conference has endorsed former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. It will be interesting to see how Bloomberg fares in Alabama next Tuesday. He has spent a lot of money.  

You will see an initiative on the ballot that will ask you if you want to make the State School Board appointed rather than elected. Gov. Kay Ivey is promoting a “yes” vote. She believes an appointed Board is better for education. She would appoint the State School Board, if approved.

Y’all don’t forget to vote.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | We can’t let up in the fight against gun-grabbers

Bradley Byrne

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The Second Amendment is under attack like never before in our nation’s history, but I am leading the fight to preserve your constitutional rights.

Last year, just weeks after taking power, House Democrats passed a bill to limit the constitutional right to own guns.  Their misguided legislation would do nothing to address the underlying problem behind actions of mass violence.  That bill, HR8, would prevent lawful gun owners from selling their guns to other law-abiding Americans.  If that bill became law, anytime a gun owner like me wanted to transfer or sell a gun, he or she would have to go through a government-sanctioned middle-man.  Of course, this process would be prohibitively time consuming and expensive.  The authors of this bill’s true intent not only was to freeze all gun transactions through the power of a slow and inefficient federal bureaucracy but to subject millions of Americans to federal prosecution.  Even transferring a firearm to a family member or friend could require federal permission!

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Criminals are not going to put their illegal enterprises on pause while waiting for permission to buy or sell a gun.  HR8 does nothing to stop crime and only burdens lawful citizens.  And it does nothing to address the mental health crisis behind so much of the mass violence we have seen.  During the debate on that bill, I introduced an amendment to strip out this anti-gun legislation and replace it with nationwide concealed carry reciprocity.  My amendment actually could make our country safer.  Unsurprisingly, Speaker Pelosi blocked my amendment.

Fortunately for gun owners, we have a true friend in the White House.  President Trump has been the biggest advocate for the Second Amendment ever to sit in the Oval Office.  To appreciate the significance of that, contrast his Second Amendment policies with those of his opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton.

In 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, in a major victory against zealous gun-grabbing liberals, the Supreme Court ruled against a District of Columbia law criminalizing handgun ownership.  That law made it illegal to possess an unregistered firearm in the city but also effectively prohibited registration itself, a blatant attempt to block constitutional rights to own a gun.  Clinton, however, disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling!  Can you imagine if we had a president in the White House who thought it should be illegal to own a gun?  Unfortunately, her beliefs are now standard for Democrat politicians.

The battle to preserve the second amendment continues in the courts.  Last year, I wrote an amicus brief, often called a “friend of the court” brief, to the Supreme Court.  The Court is working on a case, N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, to determine if New York’s ban on transporting a handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits is constitutional.  Like the District of Columbia law found unconstitutional in Heller, this law is a backdoor attempt to weaken your Second Amendment rights.  I was proud to have 120 lawmakers sign onto my brief as well as the support of the NRA and Gun Owners of America.

Last week, I signed on as an original cosponsor to an important bill to strengthen and protect gun rights.  The Lawful Interstate Transportation of Firearms Act would ban states from prosecuting lawful gun owners simply traveling through their state.  This commonsense legislation would protect against liberal states’ sneaky schemes to circumvent the Second Amendment.  I’ll continue fighting for this bill with my colleagues, including Mo Brooks of Alabama who introduced the bill.

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The gun-grabbers aren’t letting up, so we can’t stop fighting either. Rest assured I will keep leading the fight in Washington to protect your Second Amendment rights.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | It’s time for prison mental health reform

Dana Hall McCain

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Two of the major items on Governor Kay Ivey’s 2020 agenda are finding solutions to the problem of Alabama’s overcrowded and broken prison system, and bolstering our mental healthcare system.

Both are badly needed, and in some ways intersect.

I understand the political challenge of getting folks excited about funding a major overhaul of something as unpalatable as prisons. It’s far easier to rally support for education, health care, infrastructure—heck, basically anything besides creating better conditions for those judged to have done wrong.

But the success of our effort to rehabilitate offenders and return them to society in better shape than the judicial system found them does have real consequences for the rest of us. Overcrowded prisons are a breeding ground for violence, further dehumanizing and corrupting those who’ve lost their way. Draconian mandatory minimum sentences strip judges of discretion to assign appropriate sentences and add to the overcrowding problem. 

A broken penal system can take people who made mistakes and turn them into hardcore criminals. The skillset prisoners are forced to learn to survive the sea of gangs and drugs behind bars will be the very one that causes them to fail after release, and get on the recidivism merry-go-round for a lifetime.

Few are discovering a better way to live, or learning how to make an honest living and stay out of trouble after parole. 

As it currently exists, our corrections system is an active contributor to the problem of recidivism. The governor can start the ball rolling, but the state Legislature is going to have to get in the game and do the hard work of crafting substantive solutions.

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Harder still, they must find a way to fund those solutions.

The other major task is creating a more comprehensive and responsive mental healthcare network for Alabamians who need these services. Those who suffer from mental health challenges, or who care for a loved one who suffers, will tell you that accessing care in Alabama has gone from difficult to almost impossible since the closure of key inpatient facilities several years ago.

Those lacking good insurance or the means to pay for expensive care out-of-pocket are wholly at the mercy of the state. Sometimes, even good insurance can’t help you out, if a bed to put you in just doesn’t exist.

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The crossroads of these two issues is that a significant number of individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of the law are struggling with a mental health condition. Many who struggle with an addiction to an illegal substance are trying to self-medicate for an undiagnosed or untreated mental health condition. Eventually, that addiction leads to a drug-related arrest and conviction.

Additionally, our lack of mental health resources means that law enforcement officers are often the first responders to a crisis. In the past, this resulted in a significant number of suffering individuals being arrested, when what they really needed was adequate care. 

Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter has taken up the cause of mental health reform, including developing more Crisis Intervention Teams to help law enforcement work with health care providers and families to reduce arrests and connect individuals in crisis to appropriate care.

That’s a wonderful, needed start. But again, the state legislature must find a way to expand the system to create beds where these CITs and their families can refer people for treatment. I’ve written before of the despair probate judges feel when families are pleading for help via commitment to a treatment facility, and no matter how legitimate the need, there is often no bed available to place that patient in. If a bed does exist, it’s not available for the length of time needed to achieve real stability for the patient. Our patchwork quilt of longterm and short-term treatment options in Alabama has massive holes in it, and it must be addressed.

These intersecting problems—prison reform and mental health reform—are real and impact us all at the end of the day. Does the Alabama legislature have the will to fix them? We should hope so.

Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org

 

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Opinion | Every school should have a mental health counselor

Craig Ford

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In her State of the State Address, Gov. Ivey said that mental health would be a priority for both education and our prison system. Then she set a goal of having a mental health counselor in every school system.

While I applaud the governor for recognizing the challenges our schools are facing when it comes to students’ mental health, the reality is we need a mental health counselor in every school, not just one for each school system.

Our schools are staffed by excellent school nurses and guidance counselors who do an outstanding job trying to help these students with mental health needs. But mental health care is not their responsibility, nor is it what they are trained for.

And the mental health needs in our schools are much more prominent than you might think. It isn’t just dealing with kids who have ADHD or a learning disability. There are kids dealing with problems at home, like parents who are going through a divorce or even parents who have a drug addiction.

There’s a lot that happens in a child’s life between when they get picked up from school at the end of the day and when they get dropped off at school again the next day. And while our teachers, school nurses and guidance counselors do everything they can for these kids, what these kids really need is a mental health counselor.

Setting a goal of having one counselor in every school system is certainly better than nothing. I guess you could say it is a more easily achievable goal. But our state leaders weren’t elected to do the things that are easy. Our leaders were elected to do the things that are hard.

And the truth is if we don’t invest in our children with these needs today, then for many of them we will be investing in their imprisonment in the future. In fact, that’s how we got into this prison crisis in the first place.

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I have said many times before that we should be building super schools, not super prisons. It is always better to keep a child from ending up in prison in the first place, and if we make the right kinds of investments in education then we won’t need these new super prisons that Gov. Ivey and Gov. Bentley before her have been fighting for.

The main reason we have overcrowding in our prisons is because we never did anything to change the path these people were on before they grew up and became criminals.

Building super prisons instead of super schools is like treating the symptom rather than treating the disease.

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We should be focusing more on getting kids on the right path before it’s too late. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

And the first way we can prevent kids from turning to a life of crime is to recognize and treat their mental health needs while they are still young and have a chance at a normal life.

But only having one counselor to treat an entire school system is simply not enough to do the job right.

Of course, not every kid with mental health needs is on the path to prison. Many, if not most, are simply dealing with difficult or traumatic events at home that take place outside of school hours.

But those events affect what happens the next day in the classroom. These kids tend to have a difficult time concentrating, and often become disobedient and disrespectful. These things, in turn, make it hard for them to be successful in school and, ultimately, in life.

Like so many other issues, we all agree on what the problem is but getting to agreement on the solution is another matter. In this case, though, Gov. Ivey and state lawmakers seem to understand what is needed to fix the problem. They just don’t seem to be aggressive enough in their willingness to address it.

Having a mental health counselor in every school system is a step in the right direction and an improvement over our current situation. But let’s not set the bar so low. Our children deserve better than that. We don’t just need a mental health counselor in every school system; we need one in every single school.

Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

 

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