Robert Bentley interview, Part 1: Private jobs, state jobs and the gambling fight

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Gov. Robert Bentley discusses his first two years in office on February 21, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Gov. Robert Bentley sat down with the Montgomery Advertiser Thursday for a wide-ranging interview about his first two years in office and the issues facing the state.  We’ll be running excerpts from the interview over the next few days, along with video shot by Montgomery Advertiser photographer Mickey Welsh.  (Transcripts will be edited for clarity.)  Bentley and other lawmakers weighed in on the governor’s performancein a piece published Sunday.

In this first excerpt, Bentley discusses his efforts to bring jobs to the state; how he reconciles that with the loss of 4,000 state positions and his thoughts about letting Alabamians vote on legalizing gambling.

How would you summarize these two years in office?

We’ve been so busy that for the first time ever over the past few months have we looked back over the things that have happened and the things we’ve accomplished and the difficulties that we’ve had to go through.  It’s been a good time because we’ve been able to get through I think some very difficult economic times without having to raise taxes on the people of the state.  Our budgets have not been good, of course.  But coming in we knew they were not going to be good.  I was asked by many people, ‘Why on earth do you want to be governor?’  Because when we ran, they said, ‘Why would anyone want to be governor over these next four years?’  Because we had no money in the rainy day funds, we had no money left in incentive money for recruitment of jobs.  Plus the fact that our national economy was down and our overall unemployment rate was at a significantly high level at that time.

So we came into a difficult situation.  But we’ve kept our heads above water, working with a good Legislature.  And they have helped me tremendously on the legislation we’ve needed.    I feel overall, economically, we have done as well as we could possibly do.  We also, over the last two years, have been faced with some difficult situations.  Like the tornadoes (of April 27, 2011).  Who knew on the one-hundredth day of office that we would have the worst natural disaster we have ever faced in this state?  Having to go through that has been, for me, very difficult.  Because I saw all the heartache and destruction in the state.  But I also saw what’s been a reward for me of how the people of Alabama responded at the time.  Of course, people judge a governor by how they respond in times of disasters.  They may have voted for me, because originally they thought they saw some potential, or they liked me.    But you don’t really know a governor until they have to go through times of stress and difficulty like we had to during the tornadoes.  I think people made up their minds during that time whether I did a good job or not.  I’ll always leave that up to them.  Even though they tell me all these polls, I don’t really worry about things like that.  You can always tell when you visit with people across the state what kind of response from people.  You get out of Montgomery, which is great.  You get out of Montgomery and you see things are different outside the Capitol.

Gov. Robert Bentley signed the Rolling Reserve Act for the state’s Education Trust Fund budget on March 11, 2011. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

You’ve made lowering Alabama’s unemployment rate your priority in this administration.  There’s obviously been a number of initiatives the Legislature has taken to try to address that; as a legislator, you introduced some legislation to do that.  Yet the state’s unemployment rate has tended to track with the national economy.  Are you at the mercy of the national economy in trying to turn the state’s economy around?

We are to a certain extent, because the attitude of people is very dependent on how they’re going to spend.  Whether a company will invest.   All that has to do with the national economy, and taxes on a national level.  All the things that affect all states and all companies obviously affect the state of Alabama.

But job creation, which is what we have been working so diligently on, is a local issue.  It is done primarily by states and local economic developers and local companies by creating an environment in the state.  The federal government, except for monetary policies and tax policies, really has very little to do with job creation.  I know presidents take credit for the creation of jobs.  They don’t really create jobs.  Jobs are created on the local level and on the state level.  We have worked extremely hard on that, and I think we have some results to show all the hard work we’ve done.  I think Airbus was very significant.  We worked for 16 months to try to recruit Airbus to the state.  It’s going to really pay dividends.  I think the organizational structure that I put in place when I came to office dealing with economic development is going to yield tremendous dividends down the road.  We created the Alabama Economic Development Alliance, and out of that, the Accelerate Alabama plan, which is a five year economic plan where we concentrate on 11 different industries.  I think putting that structure in place, having the environment in place, to recruit industries into this state – I think when the economy turns around, Alabama is going to mushroom.  I really do.  We have the potential here.  Even yesterday, we met to dealing with our skills training gap, which every state deals with, but we’re doing something about it in trying to create more skilled workers in the state.

Job creation has been from the beginning my number one priority, and will continue to be my number one priority.

In your State of State, you said “Every job matters to me, and especially that person who will go back to work.”  Democrats have criticized you for calling for these jobs while the state government payrolls have shrunk by about 4,000 positions.  Is there a contradiction here?  Wouldn’t it help the state employment rate if those jobs were back on the rolls?

It would help our unemployment rate, but most of these people will not be counted on the unemployment rolls, simply because most of them retired.  We just did not fill the jobs.  That will not affect your unemployment rate.

Why not keep the positions open?  And (give) the folks who are looking (for jobs) an opportunity to fill the jobs of someone who retired or moved onto another position?

We could do that.  However, we’re also in a situation where we’re trying to save as much money as we possibly can.  And we have identified $750 million, and we’ve already implemented $528 million of that.  You know, when we made a promise that we’re not going to raise taxes on the families of the state, and we’re trying to save as much money as we possibly can to make ends meet — you can downsize so much that it hurts government, but as long as we can still provide the essential services, right-sizing government is not a bad thing.    You really only do that when you don’t have enough money.

We actually had a hiring freeze that I think went back to 2008.  If you noticed, when I came into office, there were 37,000 state employees and there were 37,000 state employees in 2008, or basically that.  So the hiring freeze was there, but it wasn’t implemented.  We actually implemented it.  And we did not fill  those jobs, mostly through attrition, and mostly through retirement.  That was to save money for the taxpayers of the state, without hurting services.

Like I said, you can get to a point like they did in the late 90s, where they did this incentive package, and they had to hire people back, because too many people left.  And they didn’t have enough people to run government.

Gov. Robert Bentley (R)

Does the state have enough revenue to meet its service requirements?

Barely.  Had it not been for the Sept. 18 vote, and I want to thank the people of Alabama for doing that — and I want to thank the Legislature for allowing me to sign a bill to show we’re going to pay it back, because we did make a promise to do that –had we not had that, we would really be in a difficult situation right now on the General Fund side.

On education:  Last year, we budgeted on $5.4 billion. This next year, we’re budgeting on $5,8 billion, or slightly more than that.  Education money has picked up.  We’re OK on the education side.  It’s just on the General Fund side where we have so much difficulty.

You said the state barely has enough money to cover its service requirements.

On the General Fund side.

Your opposition to new taxes is well documented.  Voters were allowed to vote on this borrowing from the Trust Fund in September.  Why would they be allowed to vote on that and not on things that could (also) generate revenue, like gambling or a cigarette tax?

I’ll be honest with you, I trust the people of the state.  If the Legislature passes something like that, I have no problem with it.  To allow the people to vote on it?

You have no problem with the vote, or the concept . . .

On allowing people to vote on something like that, I have no problem with the concept of that.   As I say, I believe that the people of the state will make the right decision.  I have never said that I have any problems with people of the state of Alabama voting on anything.  Now, I don’t want initiative or referendum.  I don’t want them voting on everything.  Legislators, that’s their jobs.  When you vote on taxes, I don’t think it’s necessary to send it out to the people on things like that.  That’s just shirking their duty over there.  They can make a decision.  The Legislature can make a decision whether they want to pass something like that or not.  They know where I stand right now.

We need to find out how much money we need, and we’re doing that right now.  In difficult times, we’re able to see the stumps in the water.   We’re able to see what we need to avoid and what we need to do as far as streamlining and making government more efficient.  That’s what we’re trying to do.

The casino at VictoryLand in Shorter. (Mickey Welsh/Advertiser)

There’s been the argument made in some other states that if you’re going to have gambling in the state, it’s going to be here anyway.  I can get to two Poarch Creek facilities faster than I get to the one that was just closed down (Victoryland), so it’s still here. 

It is.

Why not try to put the state in a situation where they can collect much-needed revenue for Medicaid or whatever else, through gambling?  It’s there, and people can still get to it.  You haven’t eliminated it in the state.

We have not.  In the campaign, my stance was always, ‘If the Legislature would pass something the people could vote on, I’m for that.’ I’m for the people deciding once and for all on this issue.  I’m as tired of this as the people of the state of Alabama.  This week, the Supreme Court asked a judge in Macon County to issue a search warrant.  The courts have caused this problem, and the courts need to solve it.  I want to encourage everyone involved – our Attorney General and his office, and anyone else involved in it:  Let’s let these issues go before a court, and let’s get a final determination on what is legal, and what is not legal.  And then let’s move on.

Would you support a way to allow it, since we’re not collecting revenue now?  It’s on the Indian facilities where obviously the state does not see revenue.  (Is there) a way for the state to retrieve revenue from these private facilities that could be used for Medicaid and Corrections?

There are only two ways you could get money from the Poarch Creek Indians.  One is a compact that I did as governor with them.  And I don’t know if Legislature can do a compact.  I’m not at a point where I am looking at that.  That is not something on my radar screen right now.  But if the Legislature wished to pass something that allowed the people to vote and come to some resolution on this, I’m fine with that.

Tomorrow:  Bentley on the state of Medicaid and Corrections, and why he thinks turning down Medicaid expansion will force changes in the Affordable Care Act.

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen and Brian Lyman

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