Gov. Robert Bentley gave his annual “State of the State” address Tuesday night before a packed house in the Old House Chamber in the State Capitol.
Bentley initiated his address by reminiscing on July 1969, when Alabama was celebrating its 150th year as a state and watching a man land on the moon, noting that it was Alabamians who constructed the Saturn V rocket which took them there.
“It was Alabamians who dared to believe they could do the improbable,” Bentley said.
Bentley touted Alabama’s achievements in Pre-K education, as well as recent advances in employment throughout the state, noting that roughly 52,000 jobs were added last year resulting in an investment of more than $2 billion from Alabama industries.
The first Alabama jetliner will roll off the lines this year, with another 50 to follow next year, as well as the Honda Ridgeline, which will debut at this Sunday’s Super Bowl – all “proudly stamped ‘Made in Alabama.’”
The governor also boasted about the current unemployment rate, which is at its lowest point since 2008, and efforts by the Alabama Department of Labor to bring workers and employers face-to-face in Alabama’s neediest communities.
He continued by commending Alabama principals and teachers for assisting students in achieving an 89 percent graduation rate. Further, the governor advocated a pay raise for principals, teachers and school support staff, along with all state employees, “no strings attached.”
He condemned the actions of the federal government in regards to executive actions on gun laws and refugee resettlement and celebrated the work of veterans and small business owners. He further praised the work of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, calling them one of the “most efficient agencies in the state.”
The governor then addressed Alabama’s rank as the 6th poorest in the country, adding that the state is “dead last in virtually every quality of life” measurement.
“Year after year, Alabama continues to find itself at 48th, 49th and 50th,” Bentley said. “We’re all Alabamians. It’s time we take a hard look at our problems and work toward a solution. To care about Alabama is to care about her people.”
The governor then discussed what he called “Great State 2019,” which he said would address “longstanding problems” from health care to prison reform and education.
“We will do what we’ve never done before,” Bentley said, referencing an earlier nod to President John F. Kennedy. “Not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”
Bentley called for increasing the number of children who attend college by creating a scholarship to seek out eligible seventh-grade students, from low-income areas, and mentoring them throughout their education and paying the cost of the student’s two-year college tuition. The governor said the program would be funded through the money saved by “streamlining measures” employed by the state’s community college system.
In an effort to “allow business to drive workforce development,” Bentley called for efforts to increase access to technology, specifically broadband internet, in rural communities. He said the first step would be to provide the infrastructure and then allow private companies to provide internet access at reasonable costs.
The governor then touched on Alabama’s prison system.
“For decades, Alabama’s prisons have become increasingly overcrowded,” Bentley said. “But that’s going to change, beginning now.”
Bentley called for permanently closing all of Alabama’s current prisons and replacing them with four new “state of the art” facilities, the construction of which he said would be paid through savings from closing the older, inefficient prisons.
The governor further called for better access to doctors and dentists in rural parts of the state, noting that the state is 40th in the nation for doctors per capita and 50th in the nation for dentists. He proposed scholarships, student loan forgiveness and tax credits for students who agree to study medicine or dentistry in exchange for practicing in rural areas.
“We accept an impossible challenge,” Bentley said. “We will succeed. This is our moon shot, this is our great state.”