Bentley: State in dire straits

Published 12:04 am Saturday, February 19, 2011

MONTGOMERY – “We’re a lot worse off than you think.”

One month in to his administration, that’s the message Gov. Robert Bentley expects to have to give in his state of the state address relative to the General Fund budget.

“I promised I would be a leader and make decisions,” Bentley said. “We have tough decisions to make, and I will not shrink away.”

Bentley spoke to members of the Alabama Press Assoc-iation in Mont-gomery Friday. He must present his budgets to the legislature on the second day of the session, which begins March 1.

“We are in dire straits as far as the General Fund is concerned,” Bentley said.

Bentley said he will be forced this month to declare 15 percent proration in this year’s General Fund budget, but vowed to protect some General Fund operations.

“We have to protect Medicaid, prisons, ethics and pardons and paroles, even in the 15 percent,” Bentley said.

Bentley said he’ll soon have to declare some proration for the education budget, as well.

Looking toward next year’s budgets, Bentley said education will be basically level funded, with some cuts related to retirement and health insurance.

“These are not to be punitive,” Bentley said. “It is necessary to save jobs in education.

“We don’t want to lay off any teachers,” he said. “The most important person in education is the classroom teacher.”

Bentley said he’ll meet with the leadership of the legislature on Monday – even though it’s a state holiday – to make some decisions about budgets.

“We want to work together, so that when the budgets go across the street, they’re already worked out,” he said.

Bentley said the state will have to “zero-out” some agencies in the General Fund budget in the 2012 budgets, and said he expects an additional 15 to 20 percent cuts next year on top of this year’s proration.

“We’ll do the same exercise to maintain Medicaid, the prison system and others,” he said.

Bentley, a physician who campaigned on the slogan “Alabama is hurting, and we need a doctor,” said the next few years will be a period of debridement.

“If that sounds like a medical term, it is,” he said. “It’s cleaning up a wound, and that’s what we’ll be doing over the next two years. When we’re done, we’ll have clean, fresh tissue from which new skin can grow.”

Despite the dire situation, Bentley said there’s good news in Alabama. In the past week, he said he’s announced 1,000 new jobs, and said he expects to announce a total of 1,800 new jobs in coming weeks from projects in Thomasville and Mobile.

“Above the rain clouds, there is sunshine,” Bentley said. “I want to be a governor of hope.”

He said the state has great people and a good workforce development system.

“We can’t provide a lot of financial incentives now,” he said. “But I’ve asked my ADO director, Seth Hammett, to streamline the way we do workforce development in this state.”