MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - During Tuesday night’s State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey discussed Alabama’s economy, improving the state’s education system, a gas tax proposal to improve infrastructure, the prison overhaul plan, and her general fund budget.
Ivey opened the address with a moment of silence for the 23 victims of devastating tornadoes in Lee County. Ivey also gave thanks to the emergency responders and local law enforcement.
“It is during times like these that we turn to the good Lord, asking for His continued comfort and healing hands,” she said.
Ivey talked about the resiliency of Alabama’s people, saying in 200 years of statehood, Alabamians have always stepped forward when the nation called. She referenced the Tuskegee Airman, Rosa Parks, and the people who built the rocket that took man to the moon.
“The people of our state shaped the past,” she said. “They are influencing the present, and without a doubt, they are at the forefront of defining our future.”
Ivey moved on to talk about Alabama’s economy, which she said is breaking records.
“In 2018, alone, Alabama achieved a historic total of $8.8 billion dollars in new capital investments, which created more than 17,000 new and future jobs for our people,” she said. “Major technology companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Shipt are showing the rest of the country what it means to do business in our state.”
Ivey also discussed Alabama’s growing automotive and aerospace manufacturing industries, with the state poised to be the number two auto-producing state in the nation in less than five years. Her Department of Commerce is also working to expand project activity areas like technology, forestry and bioscience.
“And make no mistake. The upward trend in Alabama’s economy is a direct compliment to the men and women in Alabama’s workforce,” Ivey said. “These very men and women are regaining hope because of the good-paying jobs that are pouring into our state.”
Ivey celebrated the state’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in Alabama history, but she also addressed the approximately 80,000 Alabamians seeking employment. She urged them not to lose faith.
“Regardless of their own individual situation, every Alabamian must be given an opportunity to provide for themselves and their family, enabling them to climb the ladder to success,” she said.
Ivey addressed education in the state, saying through “Strong Start, Strong Finish,” Alabama is making important strides to improve the education system.
“Last year, we increased funding by $18.5 million dollars, which was the largest, single-year increase ever approved,” she said. “And because of that historic investment, 107 new First Class Pre-K classrooms were added last fall, which led Alabama to officially break the 1,000-classroom mark.”
Ivey talked about the rising demand of the computer science field, and the under representation of women and minorities in STEM professions. She introduced her guest for the night, Arrington Harper, who is a senior at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, and is “the face of changing this disparity.”
“She is a recipient of the Aspirations in Computer Science Award for Alabama,” Ivey said. “She is an advocate for computer science education and girls in computer science. She wants to use her passion to help address the gender and race gaps that exist in computer science education. Arrington has spoken to numerous groups of parents and educators and was invited by the National Center for Women in IT to share her experiences at large. She plans to major in computer science in college.”
To carve a path for students to enter the workforce highly skilled and well-equipped, Ivey asked the legislature to fund a new co-op program for Alabama’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
"It is geared specifically toward Alabama’s HBCU students interested in pursuing careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” she said. “It is not only a win for these students; it’s a win for these colleges and universities. And it’s a win for our employers who are gaining qualified individuals to strengthen the work of their company.”
Ivey also talked about Alabama’s infrastructure, saying motorists are experiencing the poor conditions first hand.
“Almost three decades have gone by, and Alabama has not made one change to our infrastructure funding,” she said. “While our neighboring states are increasing their revenue for their transportation budgets, Alabama has not. We are dead last.”
Ivey said numerous roads and bridges are due for resurfacing and replacement, referencing the major congestion on freeways and traffic fatalities in the last few years. From 2015 to 2017, Alabama saw nearly 3,000 traffic fatalities. Ivey said one-third of those were due to deficiencies in the state’s roadways.
Ivey also said the rough roads cost Alabamians an average of $507 annually in vehicle maintenance, and a total of $2 billion statewide.
“That is why we are proposing a 10-cent increase in Alabama’s fuel tax,” she said. “This increase would be implemented over the next three years.”
Ivey is referencing a proposal she announced on Feb. 27. The phase-in would be for six cents in 2019, two cents in 2020, and two cents in 2021.
Alabama hasn’t changed its fuel tax rates since the early 1990s.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am willing to call you, the members of the Alabama Legislature, into a special session, if necessary, to focus solely on passing this critical legislation,” she said.
Ivey moved on to discuss Alabama’s prisons. She said next steps should be to address the issue of under staffing to improve recruiting and retention efforts.
“Alabama is currently under a federal court order requiring the state to roughly double the number of corrections officers over the next two years,” she said. “If we fail to resolve the apparent issue of under staffing in our prisons, federal courts will dictate what needs to happen in our own state.”
Ivey proposed an additional $31 million in the general fund budget, allowing the state to hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all prison security personnel.
“This is an Alabama problem that must have an Alabama solution,” she said.
Ivey said she is proud to say the general fund budget she is proposing will use funds wisely. Ivey said while Medicaid will require $40 million less in 2020 than in 2019, she is proposing an additional $7 million for mental health programs. She’s also including funding to hire and train 50 more state troopers.
“I have also included in my budget a 2 percent pay raise for all state employees,” she said. “These men and women went too long without merit raises, and with the increase last year and the additional increase this year, we are making it right.”
Ivey’s education budget will provide $25 million to expand the First Class Pre-K program, which will expand the program by 193 classrooms. Her budget also provides an increased investment of $75 million to four-year public colleges and universities.
She also proposed to the legislature a four percent raise for all teachers: pre-k through community college.
Ivey closed out her speech by reminding the legislative members that Alabama’s story will continue past their and her time in office.
“When we make improvements to our state’s infrastructure, to our prisons, and to our education system, we are planting a seed of opportunity for Alabama’s next 200 years,” she said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a governor looking beyond the next four, the next eight or even 10 years. I am a governor leading our state into the next century.”
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton offered the Democratic response immediately after Ivey’s address. He echoed that infrastructure needs to be taken care of, but he said there are other ways of funding it that don’t rely on Alabama residents’ funding it.
“I know that we need infrastructure in this state,” he said. “But the question is while we’re doing 10 cents, is that a hardship on the people of Alabama, of the working poor?”
Singleton said other state’s have improved infrastructure by creating a lottery. He said a lottery could also help fund Medicaid expansion.
“Let’s give the people an opportunity to vote on a lottery, and use it for Medicaid expansion," he said. "And therefore we can save rural hospitals, we can make sure that there’s medical care for every Alabamian across the state, those working class people who are going to work everyday who don’t get healthcare on their jobs, we can make sure that we can expand that Medicaid.”
Singleton also said the pay raise proposed for state workers and teachers could be higher, to show those employees that they are valued for the work they do.
In a curious move, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon said lawmakers plan to meet after Ivey’s address.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said he wasn’t aware of the meeting Tuesday night and speculates there could be talk about the gas tax increase. Tuesday night, Ivey called a special special session to focus on her infrastructure plan.