By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — In the first press conference of her young administration, Gov. Kay Ivey promised to turn the State around after years of political turmoil following the ouster of a governor, a House speaker and a chief justice.
Ivey, 72, who assumed the State’s highest post Monday after former Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after falling prey to a spiraling sex scandal, laid out a broad, albeit vague political agenda in response to wide-ranging questions from reporters.
The former State Treasurer and Lieutenant Governor has largely stayed out of the ideological political fray during her years in State government. But she covered everything from ethics, prisons and Medicaid — to her dog, Bear — on Thursday.
Ivey declares a new day in Montgomery
Ivey has said her first priorities as Governor would be steadying “the ship of State,” restoring the people’s trust in government and restoring Alabama’s image — an image marred by criminal prosecutions of two top state officials, Bentley and former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, within the course of one year.
“There has no doubt been a dark cloud hanging over our great State,” Ivey said. “People all over the world, much less the nation, have all their eyes on Alabama, and it’s not for the right reasons. That’s very troubling. People have lost trust in their government leaders.”
Bentley had been accused of misusing State funds to facilitate an affair with a former top staffer, Rebekah Mason. He resigned as part of a deal from prosecutors Monday, agreeing to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges. He faces 12 months probation and more than $7,000 in fines.
“His actions were not complimentary to any of us,” Ivey said of Bentley.
Since beginning her new job Monday, Ivey has shaken up the executive branch, accepting resignation letters from SERVE Alabama Director Jon Mason, Rebekah Mason’s husband; ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler, who was appointed by Bentley and ordered an internal investigation into former Secretary Spencer Collier at Bentley’s directive; and Ron Sparks, the director of Governor’s Rural Development Office, which Ivey has chosen to disband.
Jon Mason and Stabler were considered too close to the former governor’s sex scandal. Jon, who made more than $90,000 a year, often traveled with the governor and Rebekah Mason to events, including most recently to President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Stabler had previously served as Bentley’s chief security officer and was promoted after Bentley ousted Collier after a disagreement over cooperating with the Hubbard investigation.
“Any time there is a transition or a change of administration, there are going to be changes,” Ivey said. “We’re going to be deliberate and consider and evaluate each one of the cabinet offices.
“I can’t tell you right now when and what positions are going to be changed, but just know some changes are coming.”
Ivey promised to be supportive of efforts to strengthen and clarify the State’s Ethics Laws, which were used to convict Hubbard on 12 felony ethics charges. They could have been used against Bentley, presumably, if he had not accepted a plea deal on charges of violating campaign finance law.
“I believe in ethics just like we all do,” she said. “Truly, I think there are some needs for clarity in the current Ethics Law. I will sure be supportive of clarity and making sure we’re all on the straight and narrow.”
Between Hubbard, Bentley and Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was suspended last year for violating the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics, all three of Alabama’s top elected officials have been removed over some type of ethics violation. The three investigations and trials cost state taxpayers millions.
“This is the people’s business, y’all,” Ivey told reporters. “This is the public’s money. This is not a personal agenda by any means.”
US Senate Special Election
The new Governor showed no trouble in handling tough questions, the most pressing of which is whether she will adjust the US Senate Special Election date Bentley scheduled to replace the former Senator, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In February, Bentley appointed Attorney General Luther Strange to the post and set the election for Sessions’ permanent replacement to coincide with the 2018 statewide General Election. At the time, Strange’s office was conducting a criminal investigation into Bentley.
Bentley’s decision drew criticism from lawmakers and statewide officials who believed the scheduling was illegal and gives Strange time to build up incumbent status going into a re-election. State Auditor Jim Zeigler has asked Ivey, who now has sole discretion over the scheduling, to move the election up.
Ivey appeared apprehensive about moving election, but said she had not made a final decision. She promised to weigh both sides, including how much money changing the election date would cost taxpayers.
“There’s a limited time available to make a reasonable decision on that,” the new governor said. “If we move the date, it will cost about $15 million that will come straight out of the General Fund budget. So, while I have some concerns about the whole situation, I have to also be very mindful of the impact it will have.”
Ivey said Strange, who served as attorney general from 2011 until his appointment to the Senate earlier this year, was an “honorable person,” though she has “concerns about the whole situation.”
Ivey, like others before her, said she wants to make education a top priority. On Thursday, she attended a State Board of Education, an odd occurrence for a governor, but it shouldn’t be surprising, considering Ivey is a former school teacher.
“I clearly understand education,” Ivey said. “I want to enforce the fact that we need a strong education system in this state. Our young people need to come out K-12 well prepared so they can be gainfully employed. Education is the fabric of who we are.”
She said she looks forward to working with the Board of Education, which oversees the State’s public school systems. The Board has been in turmoil over the past few months after the resignation of former Superintendent Thomas Bice.
Superintendent Michael Sentance took that job last year, but not before a controversy ensued over anonymous ethics complaints filed against Craig Pouncey, another candidate for the job. The complaints later proved meritless and Pouncey believed it was a hit job.
Ivey said she plans to meet with the Board of Education “as frequently as the calendar will allow it.”
“We’ve got to do whatever is reasonable and in the students’ interest,” she said. “We’ve got to prepare our students.”
Alabama’s second female governor
Ivey is only the second female governor in Alabama’s history and first from the Republican Party. Making history is not new for her. In 2010, she became the first female Republican Lieutenant Governor.
She said Gov. Lurleen Wallace, the state’s first female Governor, was an inspiration to her.
“She was a personal mentor to me,” Ivey said. “She was an inspiration to me in a lot of things. I’m honored to follow her.”
Ivey said she has not decided yet whether she will run for re-election next year. She would be near the same age Bentley, who is now 74, was when he ran for re-election in 2014.
“Right now, my focus has to be on the immediate priorities,” she said.
At the State House
The Legislature is more than halfway through its 2017 legislative session, leaving only a few weeks left to pass two budgets and settle several other priorities legislative leadership has set for this session.
Also among them: redistricting and prison construction, which was Bentley’s chief legislative priority during the legislative session. A watered-down version of Bentley’s plan to build several new large prisons in the state passed the Senate last month. It’s now making its way through the House.
“We need to have the prison issue addressed,” Ivey said. “It’s not just building new buildings; it’s also mental health and staffing. I hope we can get that bill that came out of the Senate moving forward. I hope that can be addressed.”
Having served as the presiding officer in the Senate since 2010, Ivey is no stranger to legislative affairs. She touted her relationship with Senate and House leadership at the press conference Thursday.
She may use that influence to tackle another issue that will likely return next year: Medicaid and Corrections funding and balancing a beleaguered General Fund, which was propped up this year by money from a settlement with BP Oil over the 2011 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
“Medicaid and Corrections combined consume 66 percent of the State’s General Fund,” Ivey said. “If nothing is done about those two programs or the budgets, then those two functions will consume the entire General Fund. They’re both very important.”
Ivey seemed supportive of continuing Bentley’s plan of transitioning Medicaid to a managed-care system through the implementation of regional care organizations. That plan has faced numerous roadblocks, including several delays.
“We don’t need to deny anybody anything, but at the same time, there has got to be a better, affordable way to do it,” she said.