MONTGOMERY — After two years of cutting back, Alabama’s governor is proposing new spending for Alabama’s public schools and his first pay raise for Alabama’s teachers.
In his State of the State speech to legislators Tuesday night, Gov. Robert Bentley recommended expanding Alabama’s pre-K program for 4-year-olds, while keeping attendance voluntary. He also proposed a 2.5 percent raise for educators — their first since a 7 percent pay hike in fall 2007.
“As our economy improves, I expect this increase to be the start of what we hoped will be greater and more frequent raises for our teachers,” he said in his prepared text on the opening night of the 2013 legislative session.
Bentley took office in January 2011 when Alabama was reeling from the recession, and his first two years in office were marked by cutting budgets, reducing the number of public employees and streamlining state agencies. The Republican said the cost-cutting measures and an upturn in the economy — including 26,000 new jobs during his two years — are bringing better times.
“Our state is making progress. Jobs are coming,” he said.
He said the budgets he will propose for the next fiscal year are slightly better than the current ones. But he did not propose a cost-of-living raise for state workers, who remain under a hiring freeze.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said a pay rise for state workers looks unlikely. He said legislators want to make sure a 2.5 percent hike for teachers will be sustainable in future years before passing it, but some type of raise for educators looks likely.
Democratic Rep. Thad McClammy, of Montgomery, said promising a pay raise to education employees and nothing to state workers was “a little like cutting the baby in half.”
Hubbard and the Senate’s Democratic leader, Vivian Davis Figures, of Mobile, predicted Bentley’s expansion of the pre-K program will pass easily.
“Our children need a solid foundation to be successful,” Figures said.
Bentley paused during his speech to remember the students killed at a Connecticut school in December and the school bus driver shot to death protecting children in Midland City last week. He said he has asked the state Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan for preventing and responding to shooters. The department has set up hotline for people to report suspicious activity, he said.
The governor said he supports Second Amendment right to bear arms, but he did not mention any of the gun rights bills introduced in the new session.
Bentley endorsed two Republican-backed bills that would allow the state Department of Education to step in and manage school systems that are failing and would give flexibility to school systems on how they comply with state education laws.
The second bill sets up the governor for a fight with the state teachers’ group, the Alabama Education Association, which killed his bill last year to legalize charter schools.
Bentley thanked voters for approving a referendum in September that allowed state officials to take $437 million from a state trust fund to shore up the state general fund budget for three years. Bentley urged legislators to pass as their first bill a measure guaranteeing the state will repay the money in installments by 2026.
“I expect it to have smooth sailing,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
Overall, Bentley’s speech had fewer proposals and details than his previous two State of the State speeches.
“I thought the speech was very vanilla. There was no meat and potatoes,” House Democratic leader Craig Ford, of Gadsden, said.
Bentley recounted in his speech how the eyes of the world were on Alabama 50 years ago when four black girls were killed by a bomb at Birmingham church and African-American students enrolled in the University of Alabama despite opposition from Gov. George C. Wallace.
“Today, we are ever-mindful of our turbulent past while we eagerly look forward to a new chapter in the state’s history,” he said.
He invited the world to take a look at Alabama today and said those who do will find “a state that works together, one that innovates and creates economic opportunity for all its citizens, regardless of color, regardless of gender, and regardless of politics. A place we can all call Sweet Home Alabama.”
Outside the Capitol, it was a typical opening day with rallies in the morning by tea party groups and in the evening by opponents of Alabama’s immigration law.
Gerson Oliva was one of about 100 candle-holding demonstrators. “We’ve come to tell about all of the problems that immigrants have in Alabama,” said Oliva, a native of Guatemala, who now works two jobs in Alexander City.
The House speaker gave the oath of office to two new Republican House members, Rep. David Standridge, of Hayden, and Rep. Mack Butler, of Rainbow City. Butler was elected to replace Rep. Blaine Galliher, who resigned to become a member of Bentley’s staff. Standridge was elected to replace Rep. Elwyn Thomas, who resigned to become executive director of the Alabama Manufactured Housing Commission.
The legislative session runs through mid-May.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Not registered? Click here