By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Last week, State media created a firestorm after publishing statements attributed to Gov. Robert Bentley. It appeared as if the Governor planned to call a special session of the Legislature to raid the Education Trust Fund (ETF) in order to pay for economic incentives to lure out-of-state businesses.
Later in the week, the Alabama Political Reporter spoke with Gov. Bentley in an effort to verify the facts behind the reports.
During a question and answer session at the workforce development summit in Chatom, Gov. Bentley was asked about the budget and incentives programs to bring more jobs to the State. Bentley says that what was reported from the event was far from the whole answer he gave during the audience give and take.
“One of the things that really kind of bothers me, and I know it is just part of the process, but when they leave off things that are said. The other day I was talking about us looking at a new way to fund incentives which, in the long run, will bring tremendously more money back into education…but what was not quoted in the press was when at the end I said, ‘I will do nothing to ever take money out of the Education Trust Fund,’ that part was not mentioned,” Bentley said.
Bentley further explained that with greater job creation more money would flow into the ETF.
He said his goal is to bring more high-paying jobs to the State while growing the ETF, not raiding it as was reported.
Bentley said that last year a proposal was made to take money from the ETF to fund job incentives but that he opposed the idea. “We are not going to take any money out of the Education Trust Fund. So, we put that off and did not look at that any more last year because I told them I wasn’t going to do that. And I’m not,” Bentley said.
Any reporter who has covered the Governor understands that Bentley gives straight forward, unscripted comments when asked a question. His unscripted answers give his handlers frequent heartburn, but it is also part of why people like him so much.
These incomplete reports caused a great deal of chatter on Facebook and Twitter, with educators and public school employees worrying if the Governor was actually raiding the ETF to incentivize business development.
“I am always going to be a friend to the teachers and the support personnel. I have always been that way and I am going to continue to do that,” said Bentley.
While acknowledging that teachers and the support personnel were miffed with him over changes to their retirement plans, he hopes to reward them for their sacrifice in the near future.
“We really had to do that to balance the budget early on but now it is time that we begin to reward them,” Bentley said.
Last legislative session, the Governor fought to bring about a pay increase for all education workers, only to see his efforts thwarted by Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh.
Bentley acknowledges that those who work in public education have suffered from the choices made in Montgomery, but says he will work to ensure that teachers and support personnel know they are appreciated and rewarded accordingly.
“I am going to look at the numbers. We want to reasonably compensate our teachers and support personnel. In this next legislative session, we are going to look at that when we do our next budget,” said Bentley. “I just want the teachers to realize that they don’t have a stronger friend in Montgomery than me. I stood up and fought for them in this last session, against my own party, against the leadership. It was me that stood up and had I not done it they would be paying $882 more out of their pocket” for insurance under the Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan.
Over the last four years, the Republican Supermajority has balanced the State’s budget on the backs of public education workers and State employees. The Governor says he wants to keep that from happening in the future. However, Hubbard and Marsh have worked to undermine public education with the Alabama Accountability Act and other actions aimed at dismantling the powerful Alabama Education Association (AEA).
Fighting back, the AEA has assisted and supported pro-education republicans who have won the last three House special elections and seven House Districts in the recent republican primary.
Governor Bentley says he admired out-spoken president Harry Truman, who was often unapologetically blunt. And it would appear that same quality is part of Bentley’s personality as well. “It hurts me sometimes to be totally truthful about things when I get up and speak, but that is why I got elected, because I am not programmed. I am not a politician that gets up and just says anything. If somebody asks me a question, I am going to give them an honest answer,” Bentley said.
Bentley says that the ETF is safe under his watch and that he will continue the stand with those who work in public education.