Gov. Robert Bentley calls for job creation initiatives, teacher pay raise in State of the State

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Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2014.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2014. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Tying job creation proposals to efforts to end Alabama’s high poverty level, Gov. Robert Bentley Tuesday called for new job training and creation initiatives, an expansion of education programs and a two percent pay raise for the state’s teachers.

The governor mixed calls to create opportunity with attacks on federal government programs, particularly the Affordable Care Act, saying they did nothing to alleviate poverty and created a culture of dependence.

“We will never see an end to the plague of poverty by offering a deeper dependence on a flawed government system,” Bentley said. “We will never help our poorest citizens, or our future generations by casting over them the net of federal government giveaway programs.”

The governor also called for a four percent conditional pay raise for state employees. That raise would only come if the money was available, and the Legislative Fiscal Office has projected a decline in receipts to the General Fund in the coming year.

The half-hour speech offered much to the conservative voters Bentley will count on for his re-election bid this year, and reaction predictably split along party lines, with Republicans mostly approving of the speech and Democrats largely critical of it.

However, GOP lawmakers seemed lukewarm to Bentley’s proposal to increase teacher salaries, with many saying they wanted to prioritize repayments of debt to the Rainy Day Account; lawmakers face a deadline to pay off the fund.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said he’d love to give state employees Bentley’s proposed four percent raise, but it’s unlikely. He said he’d also love to give teachers another raise, but that legislators shouldn’t do anything to put the state “in a bind.”

“The General Fund is anemic and Medicaid is sucking up every dollar and it’s not enough,” Hubbard said.

Bentley did praise lawmakers for the progress they had made in replenishing the Rainy Day Account, which was emptied to prevent proration in 2009 and must be repaid this year. “We must keep our word to the people of this state, and we must repay our debts,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Senate Finance and Taxation Education chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said there was a “need to protect the integrity” of the Education Trust Fund. Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, echoed that sentiment after the State of the State, saying he was “open” to the proposal, but that he would prioritize debt repayment in the fund.

“The worst thing that could happen for our teachers and school systems is another round of proration,” Taylor said. “I think Sen. Pittman makes a strong case there.”

Democrats, meanwhile, said the proposal to increase teacher and state employee salaries didn’t go far enough, citing inflation and increased benefit costs.

“It is an insult that the governor would reward them for their hard work and effort to balance the budget with a conditional appropriation,” said Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery. “To say ‘I will give you a four percent pay raise if the money’s there,’ when he knows good and well the money won’t be there because he has no plans to put the money there.”

The governor opened his speech with a lengthy discussion of poverty in Alabama, citing Wilcox County in particular. Bentley called for the creation of a Small Business Advisory Council “to address the needs of Alabama’s small businesses; expansion of career coaches and expansion of programs that allow high school students to enroll in two-year programs.

“The people of Alabama deserve the opportunity to find a job that pays well, more than enough than to just make ends meet,” Bentley said. “Our hard-working neighbors deserve opportunity to acquire the skills needed to get a great job that pays well.”

Bentley combined that vision with attacks on the Affordable Care Act in general and the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid in particular, saying government programs would add to poverty rates in Alabama.

“Nearly 1 million people in Alabama are on Medicaid,” Bentley said. “It is not my goal to put more people on Medicaid but to have less. It is not my intent to put able-bodied individuals on a government dependency program.”

The governor has repeatedly said over the last year and a half that he would not expand Medicaid while it was “broken,” and touted lawmakers efforts to overhaul the state’s system. Democrats, who plan to make ACA’s Medicaid expansion a campaign issue in 2014, criticized the governor’s stand.

“If he was really concerned about people in poverty, he would understand Medicaid expansion would pull them from poverty, with the money the state would get from Medicaid expansion,” said Senate Minority Leader Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.

The governor’s 2014 budget proposal is scheduled to be submitted to the Legislature Wednesday.

– posted by Kala Kachmar and Brian Lyman

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