Alabama voters will select Democratic and Republican nominees for governor in party primary elections on June 5. There will be a runoff July 17 for either party for which no candidate gets a majority.
Candidates for the Democratic nomination are Sue Bell Cobb, Christopher A. Countryman, James C. Fields Jr., Walt Maddox, Doug “New Blue” Smith and Anthony White.
On the Republican ballot are Tommy Battle, Scott Dawson, Bill Hightower and Kay Ivey.
The candidates have discussed and debated a wide range of issues, from a state lottery to Alabama’s ethics laws. Following is a look at their stances on several issues, drawn from their interviews with WBHM in Birmingham, which has been a partner with BirminghamWatch for election coverage, and from comments on the campaign trail, in various media reports and in material posted on their websites.
Alabamians want a lottery, Cobb said, and her “Lifelong Learner Lottery” features a formula for spending the $300 million she said it would generate annually.
“It should be spent fully meeting our 4-year-old kindergarten need,” she said in an interview with WBHM in Birmingham. “Did you realize that we’re only meeting 28 percent of our 4-year-old kindergarten need? Then if you take the 4-year-olds out you’re going to make (age) zero to 3 childcare more expensive. So I want to add $30 million to $35 million on a sliding scale for childcare so that young families, working families, will actually be able to afford quality childcare.”
The second priority is to fully fund career vocational education, she said. “We’d be able to add 50 million a year so that our two-year schools would be able to provide state-of-the-art equipment to our high schoolers, which would mean that dropouts would go to almost nothing and crime would go down.”
The third part of the plan involves more money for Pell grants. “We’re going to be able to ensure that everybody, whether they’re 18 and going to get a skill, whether they’re 40 and going back to school, if they qualify for a Pell grant they will go to school for free and be able to fully meet our workforce needs.”
Cobb also said she would propose a constitutional amendment that would prohibit any move to decrease spending on education, based on an established baseline level.
Alabama needs to spend the money necessary to get current technology into schools so students are prepared for good jobs, Countryman said.
“A lot of people are concerned about the budget because every time you turn around they are wanting to cut the education budget or the healthcare budget,” he said in an interview with WBHM. “Cutting an education budget should never be an option, no matter what situation you’re looking at.”
Countryman said he favors a state lottery, but he said some people are concerned that people who rely on assistance programs don’t spend that money on gambling.
He said most lower-income people he has met are concentrating on food, day care and other concerns, rather than lottery tickets.
Alabama needs leaders willing to “make some hard decisions” about education, Fields said.
For instance, he told WBHM, some communities will have difficult decisions to make about closing or combining schools that were built many years ago and are no longer needed because of improved roads and accessibility.
In an interview with al.com, Fields proposed that the state fund programs to help poor families in which parents work long hours at more than one job. He said one idea is to allow parents to spend quality time with their children by going to the movies.
Alabama needs a lottery to help fund scholarships, expand the pre-kindergarten program, and assist schools in poor, rural areas, Maddox said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said Alabamians are sending money to Florida, Georgia and Tennessee by participating in their lotteries. He said 42 percent of Alabama’s public school students live in rural areas, where property tax millage rates are significantly below those in places such as Mountain Brook and other prosperous areas. Money generated by the lottery program could be used to help solve that problem, Maddox said.
“We need to bridge those gaps,” he told WBHM. “As long as the state is constitutionally responsible for education, it shouldn’t matter where you’re born in the state, whether its inner city Birmingham, Mountain Brook, Mobile or Marengo County. You deserve a quality education.”
There needs to be an effort to improve education in Alabama, White said.
“We need a better education structure – it needs to be better so that everyone can have an equal opportunity to learn,” he said in an interview with WDHN-TV in Dothan. “
Education is basic to achieving economic development and other goals, Battle said.
“One of the most important things we have to do is make sure we have a great education system,” Battle told WBHM. “That’s square one. You have to check that off before you can ever do any economic development.”
He said the state must achieve greater accountability for schools to ensure the money spent on education is producing the intended results.
“You’ve also got to make sure that your schools are ready” to train students on the latest in technology. The 21st century workforce, he said, requires that workers are able to use computers, even in some fast-food jobs.
Local communities have to be trusted to provide a pathway for education, he said in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, “but we have also got to be a bully pulpit to push them to make education the best it can be.”
Alabama needs to concentrate on the basics in education, Dawson said.
“Every kid deserves to have a chance and an opportunity,” he told WBHM.
Dawson said there is an “army of volunteers,” including retirees and people from churches, corporations and community groups, available to participate in programs to help students live up to their potential.
He called for drug-testing of high school students who participate in sports and other voluntary extra-curricular activities. This could be privately funded by corporations and community groups, he said.
Students who become addicted to drugs while in high school often end up on welfare, turning to crime “or get hooked on heroin and wind up in a cemetery,” Dawson said.
There are “pockets of brilliance” in some Alabama schools, Hightower said, but the quality of education could be enhanced by reinvigorating the Reading Initiative and improving the teaching of technology, and enhancing job training programs.
“Let’s quit assuming every student is going to go to college, and have a dual track where they can go to college or they can enter a career,” he said in an interview with WBHM.
He said two-year colleges should prepare students for careers in areas such as cosmetology, bookkeeping, nursing, welding and pipefitting.
“We’ve got to produce a student that the market wants, and I don’t think we’re doing that right now,” Hightower said.
Technology and computers make up a fast-growing sector, Ivey said, and Alabama must train people in those areas.
There are more than 4,600 computing jobs available, and that number will grow in the next decade, the governor’s website said. The average annual salary in the computer science field is more than $82,000, it said, “yet Alabama is not preparing a workforce to meet this labor demand.”
Ivey wants to have at least one computer science course in every high school and to develop a unified vision for recruiting business and preparing students for jobs. That would include scholarships for students to pursue teaching careers in math and science, the website said. A science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) effort would include things such as teaching computer coding.
Alabama should continue to expand the pre-kindergarten program, Ivey said.
Other goals include having all third-graders reading at or above grade-level proficiency by 2022 and improving the Alabama’s Reading Initiative.
In addition to a lottery, Cobb said she supports a “modest but adequate increase” in the state’s fuel tax to fund infrastructure repairs. She suggested raising the per-gallon tax on fuel by nine cents, to about 27 cents, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
“We’ve got to have a fuel tax,” she told the Opelika-Auburn News. “Alabama’s fuel tax has not been elevated in a quarter of a century. … We have cars that are more fuel efficient, and we’ve got a lot more cars on the road in those 25 years. Our infrastructure is crumbling; 20 percent of our roads and bridges are obsolete.”
Alabama ranks last in the nation in per capita taxes, she said, and its failure to adequately fund its court system affects public safety, healthcare, businesses and families.
The state should close tax loopholes that benefit some wealthy people, Countryman said in an interview with WBHM.
He said many wealthy individuals “pay and give to the community. But I’m more or less referring to the ones that are taking advantage of those loopholes intentionally to defraud both the government and its citizens.”
He said a business shouldn’t be allowed to write off a loss because of its failure “and expect the taxpayers to pay for it.”
A state lottery could provide funding that is needed to improve education, particularly in rural and poor areas, Fields said. But he said a lottery would not produce the $300 million a year that some candidates have suggested.
He said money generated by a lottery should be used to supplement – not replace – funding currently available through the state education budget.
Fields said he is in favor of leaving the decision on a lottery in the hands of voters.
Proposals by some candidates to increase fuel taxes are a bad idea because of who they would hurt, Fields said.
“Who is that going to hit? The poor, because they’re trying to get to work,” he told al.com
Alabama also needs to move to equalize taxation throughout the state, he said.
Fields told WBHM that low property tax revenue in the Black Belt and other areas of the state need to be addressed so that quality education is available throughout Alabama. The state has the lowest property taxes in the nation, he said, and still would have the lowest rates even if it doubled the property tax.
His lottery plan would pump an estimated $300 million a year into the state education and General Fund budgets, Maddox said.
He said the lottery proposal of former Gov. Robert Bentley would have sent all proceeds to education, but there are other needs as well.
Maddox said his plan would divide money from the lottery four ways.
First, there would be a college scholarship program “very similar to what you see in Tennessee and Georgia.” There would be a universal pre-kindergarten program, he said, along with a community innovation program designed to provide health and mental health services for students in struggling schools. Finally, he said, there would be a plan to make up the gaps in funding for rural schools, where millage rates are below those of more affluent cities and counties.
There is no need to raise taxes, Smith said, because there already is enough money available.
Under former Gov. Robert Bentley and Gov. Kay Ivey, “the state’s budget has dwindled (from 49 percent) to 37 percent federal funds,” Smith said during a debate presented by Reckon by AL.com. “And that’s why we’ve had nearly a billion-dollar shortfall in state funds. It’s been a shortage of federal funds.”
“We don’t need to raise taxes,” Smith said, “We need to recapture those funds.”
Alabama voters should be able to decide whether they want the state to run a lottery program, Smith told al.com.
“I personally am not a gambler,” he said, “but people are going to gamble if they so choose. And that money is marching out of state, or is bet on football games, so I think that people in this state should have a right to say should that money or part of it be diverted into the state coffer.”
Alabama must do something to overcome its budget problems, White said.
“My view on the lottery is that I believe we should give the people of Alabama an opportunity to vote on it so their view can be heard,” he told WDHN. “And if the lottery passes, then we should be able to do is move forward economically.”
There should be an assessment of the state’s economic status before any changes are made, Battle said.
“Our first act is going to be (that) in the first 90 days we’re going to start a forensic audit of the state’s funds,” he said.
“We’ve heard many times that Montgomery needs more money, then we hear from others that Montgomery doesn’t have a budget problem but a spending problem. So let’s find out where we are. And then let’s take it out to the people and let them see. If there’s some transparency, we can show them where we are, where their tax dollar is and where it’s being spent and where it’s coming in from.
As for the lottery, it has not been a major topic of discussion for Battle. In response to a question about his stance on the matter, he recently posted on Twitter:
“The Lottery needs to go to a vote of the people. I look at the Lottery as a financial tool. The question is what to use that money for – mental health, prisons, scholarships, infrastructure?”
Dawson said he opposes a lottery because he does not believe lotteries in other states have been effective in funding education.
“If we only wanted to raise money, we could make a lot of things legal,” he told WBHM.
In Georgia, he said, the Hope scholarship program was intended to provide students with a free college education. “They didn’t have enough money for every kid to go to college, so they had to create standards. Who doesn’t hit those standards? Rural kids and inner-city kids. So that doesn’t seem to be fair,” he said.
In Florida, he said, parents in some school districts were given a list of supplies students should bring to school because the state could not afford them. “That’s what we do in Alabama,” Dawson said.
Regarding proposals to raise fuel taxes, Dawson told Alabama Political Reporter: “I personally am against taxes but … (President Trump) is rolling out a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. That probably requires a state match. If this comes down from DC and we don’t do something we won’t have the money to participate.”
He said there needs to a performance audit of every state agency before new or increased taxes are considered. “Everybody is saying it’s a money issue,” he said. “I disagree right now. I think it’s a leadership issue.”
Alabama earmarks 93 percent of the money coming to state government, Dawson said, meaning those funds can’t be shifted around according to needs. That leaves only 7 percent for lawmakers and others to work with.
The state should scrap its income tax system and adopt a flat tax, Hightower said.
“Our tax code has been riddled by special interests for years and years,” he told WBHM. “There are special tax carve-outs that have been granted to industries and people, and I’m not talking about incentives,” he said. “I’m talking about just credits, exemptions and deductions.
With a flat tax, he said, the state would “apply one rate, multiply that by 2.6 percent or 3 percent and send that check into the state Revenue Department.”
He said taxpayers would save the money they now spend on preparing state income tax returns, and the Revenue Department would shrink because there would be less auditing and reviewing.
“I think we would keep it revenue neutral,” he said. “That’s my goal. I’m not convinced that we don’t have the money we need in Montgomery.”
He said he also would ban the earmarking of money in the state budgets. No other state earmarks – or requires that certain revenues must go for specific purposes and can’t be diverted as needed – as Alabama, he said.
Ivey said she is not opposed to letting voters decide if Alabama should have a state lottery.
But she told WSFA-TV in Montgomery that state tax collections are up because, with a low unemployment rate, more people are working and paying taxes and new industries are coming to Alabama.
She also touted the Legislature’s passage of the sellers use tax, which applies to the retail sale of personal property in Alabama by businesses from outside the state that have no inventory here but make retail sales here via sales offices, agents or others.
Alabama earmarks 92 percent of the money coming into state government, meaning certain funds can be used only for specific purposes, Ivey said. That needs to change, she said, to allow more flexibility in budgeting for current needs.
Alabama politicians talk about bringing in more jobs, Cobb said, without mentioning the quality of the jobs.
When a politician says job numbers are up, she said, “ask which kind of jobs.”
“As we all know, not all jobs are created equal. Having more jobs instead of better ones doesn’t help any Alabama worker keep the lights on or their children fed.”
She pointed to her lottery proposal as a way of improving the kinds of jobs that will come to Alabama.
“We must have cutting-edge career training and offer thriving 21st-Century industries a fully prepared workforce that’s second to none,” Cobb’s website says. She said the money would be used “to train all of Alabama’s young people in the skills they need now and that they can depend on tomorrow. I’m tired of losing our best and brightest to other states and regions.”
One area that is ripe for creation of new jobs is recycling and renewable resources, Countryman said.
“We’re having to face the fact that if we don’t start using renewable resources, we’re going to deplete our supply of natural resources, fossil fuels,” he told WBHM.
He said 12,000 to 20,000 jobs could be created over one- to two-year period, by developing eco-friendly jobs in self-sustaining energy and the recycling of material that is now going into landfills.
Tourism and the film industry are important to the economy of the state, Fields said. He said these two components stimulate the economy through taxes, lodging, retail sales, conventions and attraction of new businesses.
There was a successful economic development program dating to when Lurleen Wallace was governor, Smith said. He said Republicans, beginning with Bob Riley, dismantled the program.
That program needs to be revived, using a state development office working with regional offices and the Appalachian Regional Commission to bring jobs to Alabama, he told al.com. Smith cited the plants of Mercedes Benz, Sikorsky aircraft and Honda among industries brought in under the previous program.
Every community has strengths that it must exploit to attract industry and jobs, Battle said. Huntsville has been successful at that, he said.
“We worked our bases, we worked off our strengths,” he told WBHM, “and we can see the same thing happening in all areas of the state — work off our strengths.
“Every community has something that is an economic springboard for them,” he said. “Look here in Birmingham – UAB is an economic springboard. Mobile has the port that’s an economic springboard for them, and the aeronautics business.
“Dothan has a medical school which is a springboard for them. Every community has something that we can work off of. You have to work off your strengths.”
Businesses face too many hurdles put up by government, Dawson said.
“One CEO told me here in the city of Birmingham that … every month we sit around the board room and just kind of joke about moving our business to Georgia so Alabama will come recruit us and give us the incentives they’re giving everyone else,’” he said in an interview with WBHM.
“We’ve gotta be balanced. We have to be good stewards of the environment, but we’ve got to make sure we keep our businesses set free of unnecessary regulations and the occupational fees, the licensing you have to go through. Its nickel and diming our businesses and they pay Alabama taxes. We’ve got to set them free.”
Alabama must train people to fill the kinds of jobs available today, Hightower said.
He said two-year colleges should work with high schools through certification programs to prepare students in fields such as cosmetology, bookkeeping, pipefitting and welding, the Birmingham Business Journal reported.
“Before, we were looking for jobs. Now, we’ve got them. We’ve got to get people,” he told the Business Journal. “What I want to do is bring the corporate side and the junior college side and the high schools together to make a market-responsive workforce.”
Hightower said on his website that he would emphasize the strategic importance of the job-growth effort by making workforce development a cabinet-level position. “This role will work closely with high schools, community colleges, and universities to meet the needs of Alabama businesses,” the statement said.
Ivey said economic development requires transportation.
“Transportation is a critical component to job creation,” she said on her website. “Companies want to create jobs in areas where their goods can be made and sold globally.”
She said many rural communities lack adequate access to broadband, which enhances both economic development and educational efforts.
“I strongly support legislation to encourage new broadband investments, and I ask the Legislature to join me in assessing our state’s broadband needs, to ensure resources are placed where they are most needed,” Ivey said in her state of the state speech earlier this year.
Ivey also proposed giving preferences to businesses owned by military veterans in the award of state contracts.
Praising the care available at UAB, Cobb said Alabama should expand Medicaid so quality care will be available throughout the state.
“We’ve got to expand Medicaid,” she told WBHM. “Alabama has the meanest, leanest Medicaid in the nation. We’ve got to do something about it.”
She added, “I want to make the preservation of our local and community hospitals our top priority.”
Alabama should expand its Medicaid program and claim the money available under the Affordable Care Act, Countryman said.
Besides the federal money, he told WBHM, the state could generate funding through a lottery and a more resourceful use of energy resources.
Fields said one of the most important issues facing the state is the expansion of Medicaid.
He said the expansion of Medicaid would create jobs and lead to the re-opening of some healthcare facilities that have closed. The closure of hospitals, particularly in rural areas, has cost Alabama thousands of jobs as well as less access to medical care, he said.
Besides expanding Medicaid, Fields said, the state should promote programs that help people maintain good health. Those programs should teach people about healthy diets, growing fresh foods and how to prepare healthy meals.
Alabama needs to expand the Medicaid program, Maddox said, because it would provide 331,000 Alabamians, mostly working people, access to healthcare.
“Since we haven’t taken this step in Alabama, we’ve had six rural hospitals close, two more announce their closure, including one in the governor’s hometown in Camden. We’ve had two other communities raise taxes just to keep their hospitals open,” Maddox told WBHM.
“And the failure to do has meant a $1.8 billion economic annual loss and 30,000 new jobs that we didn’t capture. We don’t even begin to calculate what it’s done for healthcare outcomes across the state.”
The expansion, he said, would have meant tens of millions of dollars for UAB.
“The failure to expand Medicaid was a politically motivated decision that may have been one of the worst policy decisions in decades, carried out knowingly by our legislature and two governors,” he said.
New approaches are needed to deal with the problems of healthcare, particularly for rural areas, Battle said.
“We can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing and be successful at it,” he said in an interview with WBHM. “Rural healthcare is one of the most important things we’re looking at.
“Dothan put together the school of osteopathic medicine and started training their own rural doctors,” he said. “And Alabama must ensure doctors and hospitals are fairly reimbursed through programs such as Medicaid rather than being penalized for their efficiency.
“That has happened time and time again with Medicaid,” he said. “The end result is that it has closed down some rural hospitals that are very important to us.”
On the question of whether Alabama should expand Medicaid, he said, “The first thing you’ve got to do as governor is make sure that you spend within your means. And that’s the big question: Where is the money and do you have the money to do it.”
Sixty-one of Alabama’s 67 counties do not have adequate physician care available, Dawson said.
“This is something that has to be addressed,” he told WBHM. “We have to get the (Medicaid) reimbursement rate settled and make it an equal playing field.”
He said he toured the school of osteopathic medicine in Dothan, “And for the first time I started seeing some hope. These guys and gals are committed to going into some of these rural areas to help us.”
But the closing of hospitals in small towns has led to the loss not only of the hospitals but also of home health care in those areas, Dawson said.
Alabama and other states could come up with innovations in medical care if the federal government would hand out Medicaid money in block grants, Hightower said.
“If we get the block grants and we start innovations on how it is we deliver medical care, I think we could show people how to do it right,” Hightower said in an interview with WBHM. “But the rural areas are a real problem, and part of the problem is the government has chosen to get involved in medical care. If they would operate in a more normal fashion, I think you would have less of a problem.”
He said he would require the able-bodied among those receiving benefits to work.
The state Medicaid agency asked for less money this year than the previous year, Ivey told WSFA-TV, because the Medicaid rolls have shrunk with more people working.
“So we are having some very positive efforts with Medicaid, and we want to keep it providing quality healthcare to those who are most in need,” she said.
Ivey said the state’s high infant mortality rate and the opioid crisis are major concerns, along with the plight of rural hospitals that are struggling to survive.
“I am also proposing funding for loan repayment programs for dentists and physician’s assistants who agree to work in underserved areas of Alabama,” she said earlier this year. “Many of Alabama’s citizens live in rural areas, and we must be attentive to their needs and ensure they have the same access to quality healthcare as those in urban areas.”
Cobb said Alabama needs a “total revision” of its ethics laws.
“In other states, lobbyists cannot buy legislators a cup of coffee. That’s what we need here,” she said.
She said she would seek to overturn a measure that critics say exempts economic development professionals from lobbying laws. That provision was passed by the Legislature this year.
Alabama’s ethics laws are contradictory and confusing, Countryman told Alabama Political Reporter, and should be rewritten.
He said the case of former Gov. Don Siegelman, who was convicted of an ethics violation, demonstrated how even politicians can fall victim to the confusion of the laws and their interpretation.
There are too many loopholes in the law, Countryman told APR, and the statutes need to be stricter and less vague.
Fields said he opposed a bill that critics say exempts some economic developers from regulations on lobbyists.
The controversy over that measure is merely “diverting attention” from the real problems Alabama faces, he said.
He said he opposed House Bill 317, which he said made economic developers exempt from lobbying laws, and believes Gov. Kay Ivey should call a special session of the Legislature to change it.
“Alabamians have got to regain trust in our state government,” he said. “No matter who’s elected, we’ve got to begin trusting those that are making these very important decisions.”
One of the key issues facing the state, Battle said, is regaining the people’s confidence in government.
“You have to be transparent, you have to be open,” he said. “There have to be some changes in ethics. We can do some of it through the bully pulpit of the governor’s office. Let’s get down to the laws that we learned in Sunday school and what’s right and what’s wrong.”
He said recent changes to the state ethics law regarding registration of economic developers as lobbyists need to be re-examined. “We’ve got to go back to get that law right. And we need to be sure that none of that legislation is retroactive.”
Asked about changes to the 2010 ethics law under which former House speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted, Dawson told Alabama Political Reporter: “I have looked at the ethics manual, and it is awfully thick. I think we should constantly be reviewing and looking for improvement. We want to eliminate any corruption, but we don’t want it where good people cannot serve.”
“Mistrust exists because of our long history of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement,” Dawson said in an interview with Alabama Today. “To regain trust, we must go above and beyond what the people expect; deliver real, exemplary results; and create a new era of ethics, integrity and honest behavior.”
“The biggest ethics reform package,” Hightower said, would be to impose term limits.
“People who have been in politics for 30 years are not going to bring change, are not going to reform,” he told the Montgomery Advertiser. “They’re not going to find ways to unleash a budget so we can find more dollars for education.”
He said he voted for a bill giving economic developers an exemption from rules governing lobbyists, but he told the Advertiser he was disappointed in the Legislature’s decision to delay work on a more comprehensive ethics bill until 2019. He said he would “absolutely not” sign a renewal of the 2018 ethics bill when it expires.
The governor disputed the notion that House Bill 317, which exempts some economic developers from having to register as lobbyists, weakens the state ethics law.
In an interview with WSFA-TV in Montgomery, Ivey said the measure, which she signed into law earlier this year, “simply brings clarity to the existing ethics laws.” She said companies have always sent in site selectors, and there was no suggestion they were lobbyists unless they asked members of the executive and legislative branches to create new incentives for their companies, in addition to those that are already on the books.
Ethics legislation will be brought up in the 2019 legislative session, Ivey told WSFA, and she is proposing a change in the way members of the Alabama Ethics Commission are selected.
The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House of Representatives appoint commission members. Ivey said she does not believe those three – who are subject to ethics laws and rulings of the Ethics Commission – should appoint commission members. Instead, she said, commissioners could be appointed by the chief justice and presiding judges of the state Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals.