On Tuesday Governor Robert Bentley delivered his annual State of the State address to the Alabama Legislature on the opening day of the general session (Groundhog Day). In his address he advocates a sweeping program for change he calls “Alabama’s Great State 2019 Plan,” which he would implement over the next three years. He calls for tearing down Alabama’s prisons and building larger, more modern ones; doubling the money spent on Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program; offering free community college tuition to all qualified Alabama high school graduates; upgrading Alabama’s broadband infrastructure so people living in the sticks can access the Internet; and providing incentives for physicians to locate their practices in under-served rural communities.
I have problems with some of Bentley’s proposals which I will discuss in a minute, but by-and-large it’s an audacious and laudable program.
But has Governor Bentley met our Republican legislators? Does he really think this group of death-before-taxes far fringe right-wingers is actually going to vote to raise taxes to fund these expensive programs?
I think the Governor, like little Cindy Lou Who (who was no more than two), is fooled by the Grinch legislature’s Santa Claus costume.
The governor’s speech was ideologically all over the place. I’m beginning to question whether Bentley is the same rock-ribbed Republican who opted not to bring expanded Medicare and Medicaid money into the state under the Affordable Care Act because, well, Obama (who is black).
Bentley starts off by harking back to 1969, when the Saturn V rocket designed and engineered in Huntsville put a man on the moon. He likens his Great State 2019 program to a “moonshot.” I think he’s right, except that science and ingenuity typically fare poorly in the Alabama Legislature, so getting his program passed will be harder than sending people to the moon.
Bentley then brags about the success Alabama has enjoyed in luring industry to the state, providing high-paying jobs to an economy that badly needs them. He of course left out the part about the corporate welfare in the form of outrageous tax credits and infrastructure subsidies the state government gives these big companies in order to entice them into Alabama.
Bentley next appeals to the angry white GOP base by explaining how his loser lawsuit is going to protect Alabama from attacks by scary Syrian refugees, and somehow works in a reference to the Second Amendment, which in Alabama is apparently the only part of the U.S. Constitution that matters.
It is right after this obligatory shameless pandering to the gun-toting religious right that Bentley makes an unexpected ideological hard left turn. He states:
Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the country.
While we rank number one in football teams and economic development accolades, our state consistently falls dead last in virtually every quality of life ranking from infant mortality to obesity.
While we excel in job recruitment, on average we have more people in poverty than the country as a whole.
Too many Alabamians are under-educated, under-trained, unhealthy and unable to break the cycle of poverty and the cycle of dependence.
It drains our state resources, it drains our hope and it stymies our state’s growth.
Year after year, Alabama continues to find itself in 48th, 49th or 50th place.
I’m not OK with that.
And no one in this room should be satisfied with last place, especially when it comes to our people.
If we are ever going to go from being a good state to a great state, we first must resolve to reverse the problems that have plagued Alabama for decades.
Poverty does not discriminate. In Alabama, it knows no race, no region and no political party.
The poverty rate is in double digits in Winston County just as it is in Dallas County.
So hear me on this: every person in this room, Democrat and Republican, represents the poor, the uneducated, the unhealthy.
Whether adults or children, urban or rural, black or white –
We are all Alabamians.
It’s time we take a hard look at our problems, own them, and work toward a solution.
To care about Alabama is to care about her people – every last one.
I wanted to be the Governor of this state because I wanted to help people and to make their lives better.
I also want Alabama to be known as the best state in the nation.
Together we have a chance, an opportunity to fundamentally change those things that hold our state back, that stand in the way of greatness.
Wow. That’s the most truth I’ve heard coming out of an Alabama politician’s mouth since Karl Rove’s strategic genius and the Koch brothers’ dark money turned Alabama into the far right-wing bastion it is today. It’s hard to believe this eloquent argument in favor of progress is being made by the same governor who blocked the ACA Medicaid expansion for no reason except that black presidents are bad, unless they are somnolent religious nuts like Ben Carson.
Then, like a kid writing a letter to Santa, he lays out the expensive proposals he wants the legislature to pass. It is an exercise in wishful thinking. His Santa letter is going straight to the Grinch.
First, Bentley wants to double the amount of funding for Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program for four-year-olds. This, Bentley says, will expand the program to cover all children in the state. Studies show that such early intervention measures have a tremendous impact on educational outcomes like grades, graduation rates, and college attendance rates.
How is the state going to pay for that other than by raising taxes? Answer is it cannot. Bentley’s laudable proposal will be stillborn in the stone-hearted Alabama Legislature.
Bentley also wants to cut the Gordian knot that is our chronically underfunded and overcrowded prison system by just tearing down the existing prisons and building larger brand new ones funded by a bond issue. He claims the new modern prisons will be “more efficient” and so will actually save the state money on the annual expenses of running the prison system. That sounds like fantasy accounting to me. To fix the dangerously overcrowded prisons in Alabama it is fundamental that there be more guards. The reason the current conditions are so dangerous to prison staff is because the state refuses to pay to hire more staff. Right now the staff is dangerously outnumbered by inmates. Also, bonds require annual outlays to pay off the debt, and I don’t see the legislators voting for an annual budget increase for that either. Then there is the small problem of our beloved 1901 Constitution, under which any massive bond issue like this will likely require a constitutional amendment passed by a voter referendum.
To think the Grinch legislature is going to go for any of that is pure wishful thinking.
Bentley claims that some additional FantasyWorld accounting will pay for his plan to offer community college scholarships to all qualified Alabama high school graduates. By qualified he means students who stay out of trouble and maintain a decent GPA. As with the prisons, Bentley naively believes that “increased efficiencies” in the state’s two-year college system will enable the state to provide this enormous scholarship program.
Good Lord. Bentley not only has apparently never met the legislators, he also is obviously ignorant of the near-feudal power wielded by the presidents of the two-year colleges, or of the awful record those institutions have in managing money. The only way to finance Bentley’s grandiose scholarship proposal is to throw more money at the already-bloated two-year college system, funded by tax revenues, which again the Grinch legislature is never going to pass. It is a pipe-dream.
Bentley also wants to pour money into the state’s broadband infrastructure so that folks in rural areas will have access to high-speed Internet. He hints that this will be taken care of by “partnering” with broadband providers. I can guarantee you AT&T and the rest will not spend a dime of their own money on such a program. It will come down to state-funded infrastructure investment, a wonderful idea I fully support.
But the Grinch’s heart has not grown three sizes this day. No way will the GOP supermajority in the legislature raise taxes to fund such a program.
Finally, perhaps in recognition that his decision to reject ACA Medicaid/Medicare expansion in Alabama was pure partisan idiocy, Bentley is proposing an incentive program to lure newly-graduated physicians to locate their practices in underserved rural and minority communities. That’s nice. It’s also an enormous expense that probably would not even be necessary had Bentley not blocked the ACA expansion’s free federal money to benefit the very communities Bentley is now feeling sorry for.
And the legislature is not going to raise taxes to pay for that either.
It was a nice speech, and that part quoted above makes you wonder whether Bentley is having at least a slight change of heart from the anti-tax rhetoric he spouted in both of his gubernatorial election campaigns. Bentley’s ideas are for the most part good ones.
But the reality is that the legislature controls the money. And the legislature is so completely enslaved by corporate campaign money that the kind of meaningful tax reform that would be needed to fund Bentley’s pie-in-the-sky proposals is impossible.
Maybe one day the Alabama electorate will understand this and vote in legislators who want to help the people instead of nursing on the corporate teat. And on that day perhaps proposals like Bentley’s designed to drag Alabama out of 50th place in everything will become possible.
And then the Grinch, himself, will carve the roast beast.