By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
A year ago, former Gov. Robert Bentley delivered his last State of the State address, setting goals for a Legislative Session that not only would see many of his priorities fall short but encompass the end his political career.
Last night, Gov. Kay Ivey delivered her first — an annual address that set broad and wide-ranging priorities for a state government returning to Montgomery fatigued from scandal and ready for a fresh start.
Matching a mood among lawmakers across South Union Street in the State House, Ivey avoided major controversy heading into an election year, proposing pay raises for state employees and teachers, increased investment in education and a renewed effort to reform Alabama’s embattled prison system.
Ivey reflected on her first nine months in office as Alabama’s 54th governor, a tenure that arose from Bentley’s spiraling sex scandal but has since transitioned into a quiet administration that has largely avoided the spotlight.
In April when the new governor took office, she promised to “steady the ship of state,” restore the people’s trust in government and improve Alabama’s image, which had been marred by criminal prosecutions of two top state officials, Bentley and former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, and the ouster of Roy Moore, the state’s chief justice, all within the course of one year
That promise to right the ship is one she says she’s kept.
“When I became governor on April 10, our ship of state government was adrift. We needed thoughtful and straightforward leadership,” Ivey told lawmakers and officials gathered in the same room where Bentley resigned less than a year ago. “Over the past nine months, we have proven Alabamians seek progress, not stagnation.”
Ivey’s speech focused largely on issues she has spearheaded since she ascended to the post last year including education, economic development and improving the state’s prisons. Ivey’s General Fund and Education Trust Fund, which she highlighted Tuesday, propose modest spending increases that she says are “conservative, practical and wisely fund state services.”
“Like always, our budgets are at the forefront of state government. However, this year, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar position related to our budgets,” Ivey said, pointing to a state financial situation state officials say is the best in recent years thanks largely to increases in tax revenue.
Ivey’s proposal to increase pay for teachers and state employees is among her budget plans. While it isn’t yet clear how much those raises will be, a presentation given by Finance Director Clinton Carter at committee hearings Tuesday morning pointed to a funding request of about $92.5 million for teacher raises and $14.4 million for state employees.
The Legislature will need to approve Ivey’s proposal, and experts estimate that a 1 percent pay raise for K-12 employees would amount to more than $40 million, meaning Ivey could request around a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. A 1 percent increase for state employees would cost upward of $18 million.
The cost-of-living increase for state employees would be the first since 2008.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are largely supportive of Ivey’s plan to increase pay for state employees and teachers. Some legislators both Republican and Democratic who have spoken with APR even want to appropriate more raises than Ivey has requested.
“I think that is long overdue,” said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville. “We’ve heard a whole lot about that in election years, but we look forward to working with her on that. I wish there was a 5 percent pay raise because back several years ago we increased what educators pay into retirement benefits. We need to get back to those levels.”
Ivey proposed other investments in education including a funding increase of $23 million for the state’s pre-K program, fully funding the K-12 request of $144 million and increasing funding for universities and colleges by an additional $50 million. The increases, Ivey said, amount to the largest investment in education in 10 years.
Lawmakers put away more than $93 million last year for challenges they felt could arise between federal funding of state health programs and required changes to the state prison system. The pay increases will likely depend on how much the Legislature will need to pump into complying with court-ordered changes to prison health care and mental health, reducing prison overcrowding and infrastructure issues and whether the state will need to pay more to finance the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Congress last year missed a deadline to fund CHIP and the program has been in flux since. ALL Kids, just one component of the CHIP program in Alabama, costs upward of $200 million a year. The state was able to keep the program running through January using reserves and Congress appropriated temporary funding that will enable the program to function for a few more months, but it isn’t clear if Congress will arrive at an agreement on a permanent fix and whether that fix could increase state costs.
“We kind of just have to sit back and see what the feds are going to do and respond to that,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Tuesday. “I feel very good that at the end of the day the program will be funded but it’s very important to the Legislature that it exists, and we will do everything we can to make sure it stays.”
Ivey’s budget calls for an additional $30 million for the Alabama Department of Corrections, a plan that moves in a different direction than recent years. The funding, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said, will be used to hire new corrections officers, focus on officer retention, improve health outcomes and finance the creation of a construction master plan to address crumbling facilities built largely in the 1960s and 70s.
ADOC had been pushing a prison construction plan, the Prison Transformation Initiative, that would have led to the construction of four mega-prisons to reduce overcrowding. But that legislation ultimately died last year in the final days of the session.
Marsh said Tuesday he believes pay raises are possible because of growth in revenue, fueled largely new revenue from the internet sales tax and insurance sources. The education budget will see revenue increases from growing income and sales tax revenue buoyed by a growing economy and an employment rate at record levels.
Ivey remained positive, pointing to the increased revenue while noting the state Medicaid Agency, the largest recipient of appropriations, is expected to need less money this year than previously anticipated as fewer Alabamians are eligible for benefits.
“Our improved economy allows us to not just fund state programs, but to expand the ones making a positive difference,” Ivey said during her speech.
Most of Ivey’s plans focus on the Legislature’s only constitutional duty, as lawmakers in Montgomery this year are expected to focus mainly on the budgets as they head into an election year. The agenda, albeit broad, is not particularly ambitious, though it seeks other modest investments in the realm of education, a point of bipartisan agreement.
The legislature, which gathered Tuesday for its first day, will reconvene Thursday for a session that is expected to match the non-controversial, budget-focused tone of Ivey’s address. Ivey and lawmakers in the State House face primaries just months from now in June and a statewide election in November.