By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Tuesday, February 2, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) delivered his sixth State of the State Speech to a joint House of the Alabama Legislature in the historic Alabama Capital Building.
Gov. Bentley said that on the State’s 150th anniversary, a state man also first landed on the moon. That year was 1969, before many current Alabamians were even born. Bentley said, “With that first giant leap for mankind, America achieved the unthinkable, the incredible, the unbelievable. And it was Alabama that made the impossible, possible. The powerful Saturn V rocket that took man to space, to new heights, was imagined, engineered and built by a brilliant team of scientists right here in Alabama. It was Alabamians who dared to believe they could do the improbable.”
Bentley unveiled an ambitious agenda that included expanding the State’s pre-kindergarten program; expanding services for prisoners, massive new prisons, improving access to an education and job training, college scholarships, and plans to lure doctors to rural areas of the state.
Gov. Bentley said that, “When jobs are needed, we will bring industries along with brighter opportunities to our communities and families. Last year alone, Alabama added over 52-thousand jobs. So convinced are top industries that our state is the place to grow, they invested over 2-billion dollars to create good, high-skill, well-paying jobs for our people.”
Bentley listed the luring of Polaris, expansion at Mercedes, the Airbus plant, the GE Aviation jet engine factories, the Alabama-made Honda Ridgeline truck, and the Google call center as part of, “Alabama’s impressive string of coveted economic development projects.”
The Governor touted Alabama’s high school graduation rate which has, “Jumped an impressive 17-percent in the last four years. Today, Alabama’s high school seniors are graduating at a rate of 89-percent, up from 72-percent just four years ago.”
Bentley is proposing a, “Pay-raise for teachers AND school support personnel, as well as all State employees – with no strings attached.”
Bentley also touted an Alabama Small Business Commission and the Alabama Veterans Network initiative which places stickers on Veteran-owned businesses.
Gov. Bentley blasted the Obama Administration specifically over the Refugee Resettlement Act which the Governor said, “Has failed America and its citizens. The outdated program – which pre-dates any recent acts of radical terrorism – allows refugees from the most radical nations to enter countries including the US with little known about them. Among those refugees are those who would commit the most violent, deadly and extreme acts of terrorism.”
Bentley said, “I have made my deep concerns well known to the Obama Administration. And those concerns have fallen on deaf ears. In an effort to reform the Refugee Resettlement Act, my administration filed suit last month against the federal government demanding the involvement of the states in this critical program. By filing suit, my goal is to completely reform the Refugee Resettlement Program.”
The Governor asked the legislature to pass a joint resolution calling on Congress to reform the Refugee Resettlement Act. He thanked State Representative Connie Rowe and State Senator Clyde Chambliss for introducing that resolution.
The Governor praised the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) as, “One of the most efficient and effective agencies in the state” and urged the legislature to, “Adequately fund ALEA to protect our State, and our people from harm.”
Gov. Bentley went on, “Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the country. While we rank number one in football teams and economic development accolades, our state consistently falls dead last in virtually every quality of life ranking from infant mortality to obesity.”
Gov. Bentley said, “I wanted to be the Governor of this state because I wanted to help people and to make their lives better. I also want Alabama to be known as the best state in the nation. Together we have a chance, an opportunity to fundamentally change those things that hold our state back, that stand in the way of greatness. It’s time we do the impossible. The improbable. The unbelievable. It’s time we Shoot for the Moon.”
To do this, Bentley unveiled something he called the, “Great State 2019 Plan” which would correspond with the State of Alabama’s 200th Birthday, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing and the end of the Bentley Administration.
Bentley said, “I want to leave this office, able to say with confidence that Alabama is truly a great State.” Bentley’s plan focuses on Alabama’s approximately 55 rural counties.
Bentley is asking the legislature to double the funding for Alabama’s controversial Pre-K program.
Bentley also said, “Industries have told us they need more highly trained, educated workers than we have. Yet, the number of Alabama students who are choosing to go to college is declining. Our goal by the year 2019 is to significantly increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.”
Bentley proposed a new Alabama’s own FUTURE Scholarship Plan. The Bentley plan would identify 7th graders beginning in the state’s poorest counties and then provide those students with tutoring, summer-help programs, visits to college campuses and financial planning to make sure they not only want to go to college, but that they can and will succeed. “Offered as a “last dollars” incentive, the FUTURE Scholarship Plan will not only educate and train our students, it will produce a pipeline of well-trained, well-educated talent for industries so those businesses can expand and grow.”
The Governor claimed that we, “Will be able to fund these scholarships and this plan through money we save by the streamlining measures we have already put in place in the community college system.”
Bentley said, “The results will be a well-trained, well-educated new generation of Alabamians.” “For the first time in Alabama, we will allow business and industry to drive our workforce development system.” “The new Alabama Workforce System will be driven by business and industry demand, and what skills and talents those industries need.”
Bentley also promised to embark, “On an ambitious plan to provide rural and under-served communities access to broadband – high speed, high capacity – technology.” “Promoting a robust broadband network will lead to a stronger education system, increased capabilities for healthcare, a more efficient connected law enforcement and enhanced economic development opportunities.”
Bentley proposed radically changing how the State houses its prisoners. “We will permanently close the doors to decades old facilities where maintenance costs have skyrocketed and increased staff are needed. These aging prisons will be consolidated and replaced by four, newly constructed state of the art facilities. And by constructing a brand new female prison facility, the State of Alabama will permanently slam the door shut on Tutwiler Prison for Women. Funded by an adequate bond issue, we will begin this process within the year.”
Alabama already spends less money per prisoner per day than any other state in the country; but Governor Bentley claims that, “The money we save with the more efficient prisons will in turn be used to pay off the debt of the construction.” “Alabama’s prison system will go from being an outdated, inefficient overcrowded system to being the best. And Alabama will become the model for the rest of the nation.”
Gov. Bentley proposed increasing funding, “For medical scholarships and loan forgiveness for medical students who commit to serving a period of time in one of our underserved communities. This applies to physicians, physician assistants, advance-practice nurses and dentists.” Bentley proposed a state tax-credit of up to $5000 and asking Congress to provide a 450,000 federal tax credit for those classified as rural healthcare providers.” Bentley also proposed funding 12 new residency programs across the State.
Bentley’s rambling nearly five thousand word speech closed with, “Once again we accept an impossible challenge, and like our scientists in 1969, once again WE WILL SUCCEED. This is our Moonshot. This is our Great State. God Bless you all. And may God continue to Bless the Great State of Alabama.”
House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) responded, “I was very encouraged to hear Gov. Bentley essentially endorse the House Democratic Caucus’ education agenda tonight, especially with his call for more support for pre-K. I couldn’t have agreed more!” Ford said however that Bentley should have called for a lottery to fund the scholarships he wants.”
House Rural Caucus Chairman David Standridge (R-Hayden) said, “Tonight, my friend, Governor Robert Bentley, charted a new course for Alabama. This course, not only recognizes the needs of the largest population centers in our state, but also recognizes the needs of our most rural citizens. I look forward to receiving more specifics on the governor’s plans and I hope we can come to a consensus on legislation in the upcoming session that will move rural Alabama forward.”
Ford called parts of the governor’s speech, “Bizarre. He almost sounded bipolar at times. He started off talking about the constitution and the government overstepping its authority, then he sounded like Bernie Sanders when talked about his broadband initiative, free tuition and his plan for super prisons, which I can think of much better uses for that $700 million than building new prisons.”
Ford agreed with the governor on prioritizing health care in rural Alabama, but preferred expanding Medicaid to Bentley’s tax credits and scholarships for rural doctors.
In 2015 the Governor presented a plan to dramatically increase general fund spending by $700 million a year. That plan along with subsequent Bentley administration $550 million and $300 million plans all died in the State legislature…..some of it from lack of even a sponsor.