Gov. Kay Ivey in her State of the State speech on Tuesday, the first day of the 2022 legislative session, discussed the state’s ongoing prison crisis, touched on COVID-19 and infrastructure projects.
Roughly half of the state Legislature’s leadership, seated steps away and behind Ivey during her speech, were wearing face masks, and few lawmakers seated in front of her were wearing masks. COVID-19 is surging in Alabama setting new daily case records regularly while COVID hospitalizations more than doubled in the last two weeks.
“When our prison system went unaddressed for decades and resulted in serious challenges, we found a way toward a solution,” Ivey said, referencing the Legislature’s $1.3 billion prison construction package, which includes the controversial use of $400 in federal COVID aid.
“I promised to address the issues facing our corrections system once and for all, and I have said that to make progress, we must first replace our costly and crumbling facilities,” Ivey said. “I commend the men and women of the Legislature for joining me on that mission as we moved the Alabama Prison Program across the finish line this past fall. I am certain this critical step will make a significant difference for decades to come.”
Alabama faces a possible federal takeover of its prisons for what the government says is the state’s inability to protect prisoners from sexual and physical violence, death, drugs in prisons that are unsanitary and operated by a corrupt Alabama Department of Corrections.
Last year was an especially deadly year in Alabama’s prisons, with a record number of prisoners dying from drug overdoses, suicides and homicides. Those critical of Ivey and the state Legislature’s plan to build new prisons say more substantive changes in the Alabama Department of Corrections, and in the state’s sentencing laws, are needed to address the rampant overcrowding, violence and death.
Ivey also discussed the state’s pushback over President Joe Biden’s mandate that some workers either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly.
“Speaking of D.C. politics – and I use the word ‘politics’ intentionally here – from the moment the White House rolled out their scare tactic plans to try to force the covid-19 vaccine on Americans, I assured the people of Alabama that we were standing firmly against it. I’ll call this nonsense what it is, and that is an un-American, outrageous breach of our federal law,” Ivey said.
Alabama has the third lowest percentage of residents fully vaccinated against COVID, and the second highest number of COVID deaths per capita in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state is seeing record numbers of new reported COVID cases, and COVID hospitalizations have more than doubled over the last two weeks.
Speaking of infrastructure projects, Ivey announced a project that would widen I-59 from Chalkville Mountain Road to I-459, in east Jefferson County near Trussville, from four lanes to six lanes.
“Thanks to Rebuild Alabama, we are also making improvements to Alabama’s Deepwater Port in Mobile. With the current global supply issues, having an international resource in the Port of Mobile is ever more critical. As a matter of fact, our exports are up almost 25 percent,” Ivey said.
Perhaps the most pressing matter the Legislature could be faced with in coming days and weeks is allocating the state’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funds, which comes to more than $1.5 billion.
“We must be smart with this one-time money and commit to the people of Alabama that we will wisely invest –not just casually spend – these dollars. I’ll say again that these federal dollars are just one-time funds. This is not ‘free money,’” Ivey said. “I challenge you, members of the Legislature, to make allocating these funds an early priority and to put these monies to meet some of Alabama’s biggest challenges like statewide broadband connectivity, water and sewer infrastructure, as well as investing funds in our hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers.”
Discussing the state’s public education system, Ivey proposed “resources to support grants for failing elementary schools that are not one-size-fits-all, but rather, are customized to the particular needs of each of those struggling schools.”
“My fellow Alabamians, teachers along the way have made a difference in each of our lives. The job of teachers is no small task, and during the height of covid, parents witnessed firsthand the adjustments and the obstacles that faced our educators. To that end, tonight, I am proud to once again propose a well-deserved 4 percent pay increase for our teachers,” Ivey said.
Ivey also proposed $12 million for two additional mental health crisis centers, as well as other health services, she said.
“I am proud that my Administration, with the support of the Legislature, is doing more to make significant improvements in mental health care than any since Gov. Lurleen Wallace in the 1960s,” Ivey said.