Last August, while most of the attention in our state’s capital city was focused on the upcoming second special session and looming budget crisis, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Col. Jeff Dunn came to me with an idea. He shared a vision for solving Alabama’s lingering, dangerous and expensive prison-overcrowding problem.
What Dunn had, though, was more than an idea. It was a solid solution to a problem that has plagued Alabama for decades, and a daunting task that neither a Legislature nor a governor has yet to tackle. The plan to construct new prisons and close and consolidate old and expensive facilities has become a part of our overall, long-term vision for the state.
The Bible tells us in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” When you elected me to serve as your governor in 2010 and again in 2014, I told you I had no intention of being a “caretaker governor.” I believe — I know — in my heart that I am serving out God’s purpose for my life, and that He placed me here to work for you and to solve the problems that have held our state back for decades. The Lord gave me a job to do, and I always want to work it with all my might. And that takes vision.
In February at the start of the 2016 legislative session, I delivered my State of the State address and shared with the Legislature our “Great State 2019” plan, a bold course of action that will guide our state over the next three years. Great State 2019 addresses the specific obstacles that stand in the way of our potential. Having been born and raised in Alabama, having practiced medicine for 35 years and now having had the opportunity of a lifetime to serve as your governor, I can honestly say we are blessed to live in a great state, filled with the most caring, hardworking people in the country. And I want to do everything I can in my time in office to make your lives better, whether it is helping you find a well-paying job, making sure you are cared for after a devastating tornado, or solving decades’ old problems that hurt our state and cost us too much money. The Great State 2019 plan is our solution.
Last Wednesday night, we ended the 2016 legislative session the same way we began, solely focused on solving the real problems for the people of this state. And I want you, the people who elected us, to know what we’ve done.
— Teachers in Alabama will get a pay raise this year. I have pushed for a pay raise for teachers and support personnel every year I’ve been in office. Two weeks ago I signed the Education Trust Fund budget in which the Legislature gave teachers up to a 4 percent raise this year. Today, we have the second largest education budget in the state’s history.
— Thousands more 4-year-olds will get a solid foundation for a successful education and the opportunity to attend a First Class Pre-K classroom next year. We increased funding to pre-K by $16 million. By the time I leave office in 2019, I intend for every child to have the opportunity to attend a first class pre-K program.
— We created scholarships for doctors, nurse practitioners and dentists who will serve in Alabama’s poorest counties so our people can have a doctor in their town and get the medical services they need to make our communities healthier. We’ll be able to provide low-interest loans to students studying to be physician assistants, as long as they commit to working in an underserved area.
— Schools in some of Alabama’s poorest counties will soon be able to afford high-speed, higher-capacity Internet service because of our broadband initiative, creating greater opportunities for children in the most underserved areas.
— We created the first state office in Alabama solely dedicated to serving minorities and women. The Office of Minority Affairs is one of only a handful of Cabinet-level offices in the country serving minorities.
— We delivered the first U.S.-made Airbus jetliner built by the skilled hands of Alabama workers in Mobile.
While so much was accomplished, there is still so much work that remains. We simply ran out of time in this regular legislative session to finally address the prison overcrowding problem. The Alabama Prison Transformation Act would have given the state the ability and means to construct four new state-of-the-art prisons, including a new, safer women’s prison. That legislation failed in the final minutes of this session. But that doesn’t mean we won’t reach that goal. It’s simply a problem we can no longer ignore. The Legislature and I are in complete agreement on this issue, and we have worked well for several months to reach a solution. We will build these new prisons to ensure the safety of our correctional officers as well as the safety and security of inmates.
My administration began this session with a laserlike focus on solving the major problems our state faces, and we will never take our eye off the ball. I want to assure you, we are here solving the real problems that affect everyone in Alabama. We are here for one reason and one reason only, to make Alabama a truly great state.
One thing I have learned in my five years as your governor, it isn’t easy going against the status quo. But I am reminded of what President Kennedy told those bold and brilliant scientists from Huntsville when he challenged them to put a man on the moon: “We will do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It would be easy to be your “caretaker governor.” But that’s not what you elected me to do, and that’s not why God placed me here. We have come so far and have accomplished so much in the last five years, and I truly believe Alabama’s best days are ahead. So we will keep working hard, tackling difficult challenges, solving real problems and most of all serving you. Alabama is our sweet home and a truly great state.
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Robert Bentley is the Governor of Alabama.