Chamber banquet plays host to state#039;s top official

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 29, 2004

The stars that fell on Alabama were small in comparison to what the future could hold in store for the state, and Governor Bob Riley made a promise to keep Alabama's future the top priority Tuesday night at the 81st Annual Andalusia Area Chamber of Commerce Banquet.

Riley began his speech by recognizing state Senator Jimmy Holley and House Speaker Seth Hammett, who will both have their work cut out for them as they work with the governor, starting Feb. 3, on balancing the Educational Trust Fund and General Fund Budgets for the upcoming year.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you really do have great representation here," Riley said. "There has never been better representation for Alabama (than that from Holley and Hammett)."

Riley said there are many challenges he and state lawmakers will face.

"We have more opportunity to redefine government in Alabama," he said. "When I think back to all the other administrations, I don't think they have the opportunity we have today."

Redefining government is necessary, the governor reiterated.

"Because of what happened with the defeat of Amendment 1, we have almost redefined our ability to go in and make steady changes that all of us have talked about for years."

The "changes" Riley referred to include making a smaller, more transparent government to the people.

"We have the opportunity to make this the most efficient and cost-saving state in the Union (US)."

Riley said he encourages public involvement in the upcoming regular session of the Legislature, which starts next Tuesday.

"I want you to become a partner in this," he said. "Because the decisions we make over the next few weeks is going to determine to a large extent what the state will look like for a generation to come."

Riley said since he took office, there have been many cost-saving measures implemented in state government.

"Over the last six months, we have cut $402 million out of the state budget (combined education and general)," he said. "That's almost half-a-billion dollars, and we still have financial challenges."

The cuts that have already been made will make it easier, although there is a long road ahead, according to Riley.

"Because we've made those kind of changes and because we have taken so many things out of the budget that aren't a part of core government, now we can have a legitimate debate about the size and scope of government in this state."

Core government, "which is public safety, corrections, and transportation," is the only thing that should be focused on until faith is restored in the government, said Riley.

"The debate in Montgomery is going to be historic in some proportions," he said. "Because for the first time we have the opportunity to decide the size of government and services we need without all the other debates that have always characterized the debate at hand (core). That truly is unique.

"I am so sincere that we can make this state better," he continued. "I am looking forward to this session, because with the result we'll begin to change this state."

Riley said the state is need of change in certain areas.

"This state has its problems. I don't think we've have to fight such financial challenges since the Great Depression," he said.

"We've got to get our hands around health care costs in this state," he continued. "If you look back to what the care has cost us in the past few years, it is staggering."

Riley said eight years ago the cost for the care for state employees was $180 million, but this year it will be more than $600 million. He added Medicaid has jumped from $203 million to $310 million in 2003, and this year it will be $420 million.

"It's doubled in two years. We're going to have to get our hands around this (cost), and we're going to have to (get at "the root of the problem) and still have everyone a participant in the process."

Riley added, "some of these exponential policies keep rising every year."

"Health care has gone up $130 million to $180 million in a year's time; Medicaid has gone up about $160 million. The combination of those two is $300 million a year."

According to Riley, it will be hard to tackle this problem with the insurance policies.

"What can we do? We face the same the same problems that small businesses face (with large corporations). How do you control it, and how do you be fair to everyone?"

When that happens, there will be more routes to open up in government, said Riley.

Riley emphasized involvement from the citizens of the state.

"Be a part of it, because everything we do in government isn't always wrapped around a budget," he said. "There is another fundamental element of government, and to a large extent, it is our first national prerequisite of national security.

"At a state level, our number one priority has to be education," he continued. "We have so many wonderful (learning) tools, and we have so many dedicated people to work every day to educate our children. It's time we give them the opportunity to be successful."

The governor brought up a point about education he used while campaigning for Amendment One in the summer of 2003.

"Alabama doesn't have to be 50th in reading ever again," he said. "This last year we ranked 50th in reading and 49th in writing, and by any step we're behind. It's time to change things.

"The way you change is to take the templates that have been successful in other states," he continued. "You take the things that work well here, and you implement them. I am thoroughly convinced we need to institute the Reading Initiative, which has been so successful all across this state. If we implement it in (all) our schools, we will never again be last in reading."

Riley said the people need to know that education is a priority on a state level.

Following Riley's speech, Hammett and Holley commented on their perceptions of what the governor had to say and their expectations for the Legislature.

"Actually, (senators) had heard the (Riley's) conversation before," Holley said. "We've been meeting with the governor the last several weeks on the situation of finances in the state. He is in the process of bringing reform measures to the Legislature, and I think we'll be very receptive to entertaining the proposals from the governor in regular session, or if he chooses, in a special session."

Holley said he is optimistic about the upcoming session, and said a smaller government is necessary.

"The interpretation I got from his speech tonight was 'like it or not, we'll have a smaller government because of the dynamics of funding in the state," Holley added. "There are some things we would like to keep in government, but they are not a core (item) of government. I remain optimistic that we will be able to deliver the core operations of government to the people of Alabama. It will be difficult be we have to set our priorities."

Hammett, who announced last week to the Associated Press he was considering a run for governor in 2006, agreed with Holley.

"The governor was short on specifics, but he was right that we have to view this as an opportunity to redefine government," Hammett said. "We started reducing the size of government after the voters said 'no' to Amendment One. We have made a lot of reductions and cut out funding to many of the non-state agencies - some of which I hated to see left out, like Children's Hospital and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival."

Hammett added the Education Trust Fund may fare better than the General Budget.

"It looks like now we'll be able to find enough growth in the Education Trust Fund because of the increases (in funding) we're seeing now from the sales tax collections and income tax collections. Education will be in relatively good shape," he said.

Hammett said funding for the non-education items in the General Fund will be a challenge, but he said the governor was right in attempting to make government more transparent to the people.

"We may have to (generate) new revenue," he said. "We'll first have to make cuts."