Gov. Kay Ivey challenged Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday to be transparent, thoughtful and deliberate as they debate proposals to expand gambling, with voters making the final decision.
“I look forward to working with the men and women of the House and Senate to give Alabamians an opportunity to decide, once and for all, if a different approach to gambling is in the best interest of our state,” she said during her State of the State address.
“This must be a transparent process,” she said. “And if something does not pass the smell test, I’ll sure let you know.”
The governor said more than 180 gambling bills have been introduced for the legislative session that began Tuesday, but the voice of the people has not been heard. She recalled having established a working group of Alabama’s “most distinguished citizens” to present the facts on expanding gambling.
“I’ve never been an out-front champion on this issue,” Ivey said, “but I have always believed that the people of Alabama should have the final say. If established in an accountable and transparent manner, good can come from this effort. The current system only costs the state money and you, the people, don’t benefit in any way.”
The governor also proposed a 2% pay increase for the state’s teachers as an expression of gratitude for rising to the unprecedented challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. She proposed the same 2% pay increase for state employees.
“As the old saying goes, the time is always right to do what is right,” she said. “We should express our thanks for these dedicated public servants who keep our state running.”
Because of the pandemic, Ivey spoke alone just outside the old House Chamber in the Alabama State Capitol. It was, she said, yet another example of the peculiar nature of the past year.
“During the past 12 months, Alabama, like the rest of the country, had no choice but to deal with one giant challenge after another,” Ivey said.
“In addition to social unrest and a polarizing national election, we also had eight federal disaster and emergency declarations in the state, including a hurricane, a tropical storm and floods from one end of the state to the other.
“While the year tested both our patience and our perseverance, it never tested our faith,” she said.
Ivey acknowledged the dire conditions of the state’s prisons and called her $3 billion plan to build three new prisons “a bold undertaking to replace the state’s aging and failing prison infrastructure with safe, new, sustainable and affordable men’s prisons.”
Ivey on Monday signed lease agreements on the first two prisons, to be located in Escambia and Elmore counties. Two entities of prison builder CoreCivic will construct, own and maintain the prisons, which will be staffed and run by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
“And I’m pleased to say that soon we will complete our negotiations with the developers, whose proposals qualified them to construct new prisons,” she said. “Not only will these modern facilities improve prison conditions and safety for both Alabama’s correctional staff and inmates, they will also be designed to accommodate inmate rehabilitation.
“Rehabilitated inmates are much less likely to reoffend and much more likely to become productive, contributing members of society when they are released.”
Ivey called on the Legislature to pass three measures in the early weeks of the new session. Those bills would:
“These monies were meant to tide people over until the economy recovered,” she said. “It was never meant as an opportunity to grow the state’s bank account.”
The governor said she hopes those three bills will reach her desk within the first couple of weeks of the new session. “When they do, I’ll be sure to sign them into law,” she said, “without hesitation.”
Ivey noted the work of the Legislature last year to funnel $1.8 billion in federal Cares Act money that came to the state into the hands of those who needed it.
“This money never belonged to the state,” she said. “It always belonged to the people of Alabama.”
She recognized the “transformational” benefit of $1.25 billion the Legislature passed in the Public School and College Authority Bond, which sent money to every K-12 school system and all two- and four-year colleges.
Noting that she is a former economics teacher, Ivey said students need to return to in-person learning as soon as possible. She added that measures beyond traditional school hours must be taken to aid students who have fallen behind.
“I am urging all of our schools to partner with community organizations in your local area,” she said. “This will be more important than ever before to be innovative and create new opportunities for summer and after-school programs.”
In the Democratic response to Ivey’s speech, state Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, said the pandemic had reaffirmed lessons that should have already been learned.
“We have desperately needed to strengthen our healthcare infrastructure,” he said. “Alabama Democrats have been decrying the dangers of our crumbling health care system for far too long. Hospital closures, the rise in uninsured workers and the growing physician shortages in rural areas made us more susceptible to this virus.
“The lack of mental health services contributes to the psychological and mental toll of isolation, uncertainty and loss,” Gray continued. “The refusal to expand Medicaid costs lives. The pandemic itself exposed deep cracks and significant shortcomings in our public institutions. It continues to highlight glaring gaps and discrepancies in our systems of health care, education, support for small business, criminal justice, and more.”
Gray said the state must invest in key programs that are proven to put children on the right track for success in work, school and life. Additionally, he urged a focus on providing need-based funds to schools facing the greatest barriers.
“We must remember that we are all still one,” the representative said. “We are an Alabama and we’re an American where every child deserves the opportunity to be taught to their highest potential.”
Gray questioned where Alabama is spending tax dollars if not in vital areas such as public education, broadband access, unemployment assistance and support for small businesses or job and career programs.
He also challenged Ivey’s prison-construction plan.
“This is unacceptable, especially when there hasn’t been any real conversation on sentencing reform,” he said. “We cannot sign on to this, because our prison problem is much bigger than our aging facilities.”