Gov. Kay Ivey began her first State of the State address by claiming victory in the primary focus of her brief governorship: getting state government in order after the resignation of her predecessor, Robert Bentley.
Speaking in the old House Chamber of the state capitol, Ivey made the most of her moment, raising her hands as she told legislators she had achieved the promise she made to voters in her short-notice swearing in in April.
“Our ship of state was adrift,” Ivey said. “It’s my pleasure to report that we have successfully steadied the ship of state, and I declare that the state of the state is strong, and our future is as bright as the sun over the Gulf.”
Ivey was lieutenant governor when accusations of an affair with a staffer were made against Bentley, who resigned and pleaded guilty to misdemeanors alleging he covered up the affair.
“Most governors have three months to prepare. I had three hours,” Ivey quipped Monday night. “Yet after being sworn in as governor on April 10, 2017. … I promised the people of Alabama there would be no disruptions in the ongoing functions of our state government. That’s a promise kept.”
Ivey rattled off a succession of positive talking points about the state, some of which have roots in the administrations of Bentley and previous governors. Most of the points focused on the state’s stronger financial status, both in the public and private sectors.
“Revenues are up, unemployment is way down … and improved educational opportunities abound,” Ivey said. After pointing out the state’s 3.5 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in Alabama history, Ivey announced that Kimber Firearms would build a new production facility in Troy, which is expected to bring in more than 300 jobs.
The State of the State addresses heralds an election year in Alabama. Ivey will be trying to win the governor’s job for a full year and many of the legislators will be trying to recapture their seats.
Governors and legislators tend to go easy on big policy proposals in an election year, but Ivey announced one major move: a pay raise for teachers and state workers.
“It’s long past time for us to honor their service with better pay,” the governor said.
Ivey frequently cited her conservative values as a rationale for proposing “responsible” budgets she will be sending to the Legislature. She said her proposed budgets would not result in tax hikes for Alabamians, even though her education budget would be “the largest investment in education in a decade.”
Education, Prisons on Horizon
The governor did propose new projects, including a new Alabama School of Cybertechnology and Engineering to be established in Huntsville. It would be a sister school to the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and the Alabama School of Science and Math in Mobile.
The governor spoke at length about education, citing her “Strong Start, Strong Finish” initiative that is designed to strengthen education in the early years, computer science skills in middle and high schools and workforce preparedness. In particular, Ivey praised the program’s “first class” pre-K programs. But she had no praise for the state’s education hierarchy, especially the Alabama Board of Education, which has gone through four state superintendents in the past two years and has just begun a search for a permanent replacement.
“That is not something to be proud of,” Ivey said, adding that the board and department needs to not base work “on personal agendas or political maneuvering.”
One of the state government’s biggest challenges is its prison system, which Ivey said is at risk of takeover by the federal courts. Medical care of inmates, as well as aging and understaffed correctional facilities, are issues that Ivey said her staff is working to resolve before the courts force their hand.
“This is an Alabama problem. We must have an Alabama solution. Now is the time to act,” she said.
In a response by the Democratic Party opposition, House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, mentioned the sharp political divide in the state and the nation.
“Politically and ideologically, I can hardly recall a time when Alabamians and Americans are so far apart,” Daniels said. “We should all remember that where good policy is involved, there can be no ‘R’s’ or ‘D’s’, just Alabamians and Americans.”