Robert Bentley interview, Part 3: Getting ‘right’ with the Legislature, and 2014

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Gov. Robert Bentley 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.   In an excerpt published Monday, Bentley  talked about the state’s employment situation, state government jobs and the ongoing gambling fight.  On Tuesday, the governor discussed the costs of Medicaid and Corrections, and why he thinks the state should put up “roadblocks” to the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (Transcripts were edited for clarity.)  Bentley and other lawmakers weighed in on the governor’s performance in a piece published Sunday.

In this concluding excerpt, Bentley talks about working with the state’s first Republican Legislature since Reconstruction, and why it took two years to get his relationship with lawmakers “right.”  The governor also discusses what he would have changed in the state’s controversial immigration law, and his plans for 2014.

You came in with the first Republican legislature since Reconstruction.  In 2011, the Legislature managed to pass most of its Handshake with Alabama agenda.  Some of those bills landed the state in court.  Have there been legal issues and image issues that resulted from getting that agenda through the Legislature so quickly, without a great deal of discussion?

I think we always have to be careful, if we push things too quickly without looking at the unintended consequences.  Some of the legislation that has gone through, like the immigration bill – there were parts of that that I didn’t particularly like.  All of the lawsuits have really resulted from peripheral issues of the bill, things that really did not affect the essence of the bill.  The essence of the bill says, ‘You can’t live and work in this state and be illegal. That has never been challenged.

Gov. Robert Bentley signed the state’s immigration law on June 9, 2011. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welch)

You talk about those peripheral issues, and yet after this long judicial odyssey of the immigration bill, the only major provision I can think of that’s still standing is the reasonable suspicion provision in the law. 

That’s the only one we’re really challenging right now.  Once the law is passed – as the executive branch of government, I have to execute the laws of the state.  I may not always agree with some of the peripheral things, just like the part dealing with the children (Requiring school districts to compile data on undocumented children at time of enrollment), just like the part dealing with publishing the judges and all that (The revised bill requires state courts to compile a database of court appearances by undocumented aliens, and how the judges dealt with them) — that was unnecessary in this piece of legislation, and I was not for that.  It did pass, and we do have to execute the laws of the state.  But I don’t always agree with some of those things.  I do agree with the fact that you should be legal, if you get a business license or any of the other licenses we have.  I was in favor of passing a strong piece of legislation, but there were parts of it that were unnecessary.

The state spends a lot of money on attorneys.  How much sense does it make in a time when you’re not hiring people and you’re not giving raises to spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to pay some of these large firms to handle immigration and some of these other issues?  Is it financially responsible?

Honestly, we have to carry out the laws that are passed in the Legislature.  We’ve spent almost no money on outside firms, outside attorneys since we’ve been in office.  We’ve spent very little.  And the Attorney General’s office has spent very little, because they have hired some good attorneys who have done an excellent job.

You were talking about having some objections to the school provision in the immigration bill.  Last May, you asked the Legislature to change that part, and they refused.  At the time, Sen. Jabo Waggoner, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to say the governor is irrelevant, but I do believe he is not communicating very effectively with the rank and file in the Legislature and when that happens, when you are not getting your message out, not working your agenda in those hallways, you risk becoming irrelevant.”  Was that a fair assessment?

The assessment of when you first come into office, whether you will have as strong a team in your third year – that is a fair assessment, because no governor has that.  As you come into office, you have to have to get good people into the right places to do the job.  Any area where we have seen a deficiency, or seen that we needed to make things stronger and more effective, you can see from our staff that we have done that.  Right now, you can see by the third year, we have the strongest Legislative team we’ve ever had, and they’re doing an outstanding job.  (Legislative director) Blaine Galliher is outstanding, and you all know that.  Ross is doing a good job in the House, and John Bargainer is doing a good job in the Senate.

It takes you a year or two to really put together the team you really want.  No administration is perfect, and the people you hire are not.  You just have to put people in the right places.  And that sometimes takes a year, or two, or even three.  I feel like we’re in a good position right now.

Do you think you had communications issues with the Legislature in your first two years in office?

Not necessarily.  Maybe with the Senate we did, but with the House of Representatives, we didn’t.

Why the Senate and not the House?

Having come from the House, having been the only governor that’s ever directly come out of the Legislature – it wasn’t just my fault.  It was partially their fault.  It takes awhile to get this relationship right.  But I have worked very closely with the leadership.  I’m constantly in contact with the Speaker.  In fact, Mike Hubbard and I are much closer now than when we served together in the House.  We talk on a regular basis, almost daily.  (Senate President Pro Tem) Del Marsh and I have worked very closely on legislation, and worked through problems.  But we’ve also worked with other leaders.  Like Jabo, and confirmations.  So things are getting better.  It takes a little awhile.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh in November of 2011. (Montgomery Advertiser, Sebastian Kitchen)

Since people across the street have made that criticism, who drives the agenda in the state government?  Is it you?  Is it Speaker Hubbard?  Is it Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh?  Who’s driving the agenda?

We have three branches of government, obviously.  The Legislature has a job to do, but I have a job to do.  And so does the judicial branch.  We are coequal branches of government.  I don’t tell the Legislature how to run the Legislature; they shouldn’t be telling the governor how to run the governor’s office.  I’ll tell you who really understands that well is the leadership, the Speaker.  He understands that.  And they respect that.  The Legislature – Their primary job is to pass a budget.  But we craft the original budget and present it to them.  We work very closely with them.  Every year has gotten better.  This has been the best year we have had, in working with the legislators and the legislative leadership, and the committee chairmen of the budgets – this has been the best year of the three years.  Each year, it’s gotten better.  I think that some of the issues we dealt with in the Legislature dealt with the fact that Republicans had never been in charge before.  Going from a challenger to a majority is a little different.  You’ve got some different responsibilities.  It takes awhile for them.  It takes awhile for me to work with a Republican legislature, vs. a Democrat legislature.  Thank goodness I have a Republican legislature.  We have worked well together.

From reading your State of the State speech, there wasn’t a lot of sunlight between what you were advocating there and Speaker Hubbard’s agenda, whereas we know that you and Sen. Marsh had a – let’s call it a dialogue on the law enforcement (efficiency) measures.

That’s just part of the process.  We worked through that, and were able to come to a very comfortable compromise as far as we were concerned, and I certainly believe as far as they were concerned.

After the recorder was initially turned off, Bentley asked us to turn it on again to take this statement:

We’ve had two years in office.  Being governor is a difficult job.  I truly love the people of this state, and I appreciate so much the opportunity I have to serve the people of Alabama.

Gov. Robert Bentley

Do you plan to run again?

I have been asked that now several times.  The question is ‘Have you made up your mind as to whether you’re going to run again?’ The answer is ‘Yes, I have made up my mind.’  Then they say, ‘Well, what is the answer?’  And I can’t tell you yet.

What factors did you consider in making up your mind?

It’s hard to accomplish some of the things that we’re trying to accomplish and get the state in a situation where we really feel like we’re making really good progress.  Certainly in two years, it’s not enough time.  Four years is probably not enough time, either, because if you say ‘I’m not going to run,’ you’re a lame duck already.  I think to accomplish some of the things, it takes longer than one term.  I would like to see this state turn red.  I would like to see results of all we’ve been trying to do in terms of economic development and creating jobs, I would like to really see that happen, I really would.  I would like to see our unemployment go down.  And all these companies that we’re recruiting, I’d like to see them come to Alabama.  We’ve got an exciting time ahead.  I really believe that.

So that sounds like the opening speech of the 2014 campaign.

(Smiles.)

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen and Brian Lyman

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