By Mike Cason | [email protected]
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday night proposed a $1 billion bond issue for capital improvements at schools and colleges, a 3% pay raise for teachers, and urged voters to approve an amendment on the ballot March 3 to change the elected state Board of Education to an appointed board.
Ivey, giving her third state of the state address at the Alabama Capitol, also proposed expanding the state’s nationally recognized prekindergarten program, creating three crisis centers to stabilize and treat mental health patients, putting 50 more state troopers on the road, and giving state employees a 2% raise.
And on the issue lawmakers have said is the top priority this year, Ivey said the state could not afford to wait any longer to fix a prison system in crisis.
Noting that Alabama is beginning its third century of statehood, she invoked the memory of her predecessor from a century ago, Gov. Thomas Kilby, who increased funding for public education, public health, roads and bridges, and a new prison.
“Our third century begins with a strong, robust economy and a renewed commitment to look for new opportunities to answer old challenges, many of which have been around for decades,” the governor said.
The Department of Justice issued a report in April alleging that the violent conditions in Alabama prisons violate the Constitution. Alabama prisons were at 170% of capacity in October. That was before the state announced last week it would have to transfer 600 inmates from Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore because of crumbling conditions.
The Ivey administration has been pursuing a plan for three new men’s prisons for more than a year. A study group she appointed issued a report last week stressing the urgency of the situation and the need to make it a priority to improve education and training for inmates to reduce recidivism.
“Both my strong faith in the Lord — and a heartfelt concern for basic human rights — gives me a sense of urgency to address our longstanding challenges within our criminal justice system,” Ivey said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we simply cannot afford to wait any longer to tackle this problem, and failure is not an option.”
Later, she added, “Alabama has no choice but to reinvent our corrections system by replacing outdated and unsafe facilities that pose a great risk to public safety — and inhibit development of programs for inmate rehabilitation,” the governor said.
One of Ivey’s guests for the speech was former state inmate Brandie McCain, who earned a logistics industry certifications from Ingram State Technical College while incarcerated and is now an office administrator and staff recruiter at a business in Fairfield. McCain received a standing ovation when she was introduced.
Las year, the Legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment that will allow voters to decide whether to replace the elected state Board of Education with a nine-member education commission appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Ivey supported the bill, which advocates said came in response to the state’s rock-bottom rankings on national reading and math tests and high turnover in the position of state superintendent.
Tuesday night, Ivey said the state has gotten too complacent with accepting the low national rankings, something she said would never be tolerated in football. Ivey said Alabama is one of six states that still has an elected school board.
“There’s no other way to say it but our current system isn’t working,” Ivey said. The governor urged people to vote for the change to an appointed commission, which will be statewide Amendment One on the ballot in March.
Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said there are many factors in Alabama’s low rankings on national tests. In an interview after Ivey’s speech, Figures said she opposed Amendment One because it would take away people’s ability to vote for their own state board member and because said the appointment process would be politicized.
“I don’t think that there’s just one entity to blame for the rankings that we have in Alabama as far as education is concerned,” Figures said. “There’s enough blame to go all around. It’s not just with the state Board of Education appointing the state superintendent.”
But Figures said she supports some of Ivey’s initiatives, including what she said was the governor’s efforts to gain bipartisan consensus on issues.
“You know, the governor is doing some great things and she’s stepping out,”” Figures said. “She is definitely making an effort to have bipartisanship in a lot of the areas. So I appreciate that. So I will definitely work with her wherever I can.”
Ivey proposed a $25 million increase in state funding for the First Class prekindergarten program, which has received national recognition for its quality for more than a decade but is available to only about 40% of the state’s 4-year-olds. Ivey said the increase would add 193 classrooms.
“Providing the tools for a great start in life will yield dividends for generations to come,” the governor said.
Ivey urged the Legislature to approve a $1 billion bond issue for public schools and colleges for capital improvements. She said it had been almost 14 years since the state had made such an investment. She said the money would be distributed through a formula based on need and would not include any “legislative earmarks for pet projects.”
“And whether it is for new construction, safety improvements or technology upgrades, this billion-dollar investment is coming at the right time and for the right reasons,” Ivey said.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said he supported the idea for a bond issue and said it’s needed. Daniels said he did not hear any surprises in Ivey’s speech tonight because he said the governor has engaged Democrats in policy discussions over the last year or so.
“I’m just really excited about having the opportunity to be at the table when these discussions take place so we can help mold and shape kind of those conversations,” Daniels said.
Daniels, a former third-grade teacher, said he’s also encouraged by the emphasis on prekindergarten and programs to improve reading at the earliest levels.
As for what Ivey didn’t say, Daniels said he wanted to hear more details on prison reforms.
“I think that having conversations about sentencing and bail reform is something that I would much rather have heard from her tonight,” Daniels said. “We didn’t hear a whole lot of it.”
Alabama has a long-standing shortage of state troopers. Ivey said the trooper force has increased by 19% since she became governor, to 435 troopers, and proposed funding to hire and train 50 additional sworn officers.
Ivey spoke about the tragic loss of seven Alabama law enforcement officers in the line of duty last year, calling them selfless and brave. She introduced Joanne Williams, widow of Lowndes County Sheriff “Big John” Williams, one of those shot to death while doing his job. Mrs. Williams received a standing ovation, which was followed by a moment of silence.
Alabama lawmakers introduce bills to establish a state lottery every year. With Mississippi’s new lottery, all four states that border Alabama now have a lottery. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chairman of the House General Fund budget committee, is sponsoring a lottery bill this year that would direct the proceeds to pre-kindergarten and needs-based college and career technical scholarships.
Ivey said she would sign an executive order to “establish a small working group of some of Alabama’s most distinguished citizens” to gather all the facts about how much money Alabama could generate from a lottery and other forms of gambling.
Ivey has generally stayed on the sidelines on lottery proposals before, and said tonight she did not believe the state should fund essential services on gambling. But she added, “I have always maintained that the people of Alabama should have the final say or whether or not we are going down this path.”
Any proposal for lottery would have to be approved by voters as an amendment to the state constitution. Voters rejected a lottery proposal by former Gov. Don Siegelman in 1999, the last time it was on the ballot. the margin was 54% to 46%.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said Ivey’s idea for a study group on gambling has merit, particularly on issues like what it would mean to have a gambling compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The Poarch Creeks are running TV ads touting a plan they say could benefit the state with a billion dollars in new revenue.
“Let’s just be realistic about it,” Singleton said. “I think we really do need to have an education on what it really means.”
Singleton said the study group could work like a “stop sign” on gambling or lottery legislation this year because he said it gives lawmakers a reason to wait on supporting a proposal.
The governor talked about the state’s growing economy, with record low levels of unemployment and a record number of people working. Singleton said that doesn’t tell the whole story, because he said there are still more than two dozen counties where poverty rates are too high.
“Until we find out how to bring jobs to the hard areas — we can always take them to the Huntsvilles and the Mobiles and the Birminghams because it’s easier,” Singleton said. “Let’s make sure that we get out to some of the rural communities.”
Singleton said he supported the billion dollar bond issue for capital improvements for schools and said he wants to make sure the funds get to rural schools that need them.
“I’ve got schools in my district, when it rain it still leaks in those schools,” Singleton said. “So we need to put the money where the need is.”