Governor Robert Bentley spoke about reducing poverty, improving rural healthcare and consolidating prisons in a Friday afternoon speech in Birmingham at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama’s annual meeting. The remarks were largely a recap of his State of the State Address on Tuesday.
Bentley says despite Alabama’s high-profile economic develop projects such as landing an Airbus plant in Mobile or Google’s planned $600 million data center in Jackson County, the state does poorly when it comes to health and poverty measures.
“We may be first in football teams but we’re dead last in quality of life issues,” says Bentley.
Bentley called for increased funding of Alabama’s voluntary pre-K program. He says the program provides a foundation for a child’s education.
“Those children who go to a first class pre-K program, they read early. They do their math well. They are less likely to have to have special education services. They graduate. They go to college and they stay out of trouble,” says Bentley.
Bentley says he’ll work over the next two years to build broadband infrastructure across the state. He says federal matching funds are available through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program.
“You will not get economic development in these rural areas out there that are so poor right now unless we have technology,” says Bentley.
Bentley also says healthcare services in rural communities need to be improved and proposed student loan forgiveness for doctors willing to work in rural areas.
In his speech, he declined to discuss Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which could provide relief to poorer, rural communities. But in remarks to the media afterward he says he’s focused on current plans to transfer management of Alabama’s Medicaid system to what are called Regional Care Organizations.
“We’re going to make Medicaid work well,” says Bentley. “Outcomes will be better for the people who are on Medicaid. There’s where we need to put our emphasis right now.”
Bentley referred to Alabama’s overcrowded prison system as a problem “that is hanging around our neck.” Alabama prisons are at nearly twice designed capacity.
Bentley outlined plans to consolidate the state’s prisons into three new facilities for men and one new women’s prison. He says that would produce $50 million in savings which could support a bond to fund construction.
Bentley says the new facilities would allow the state to close the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. The prison was the part of a Justice Department probe into allegations of prisoner abuse and sexual misconduct.
“We’re going to slam the door shut on Tutwiler,” says Bentley.