MONTGOMERY, Ala . (AL.com) - Gov. Robert Bentley said after years of economic struggle and belt-tightening that the state's fiscal storm clouds are beginning to lift which will allow for a little more spending on education.
Bentley in his annual State of the State address tonight proposed a 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers and education support workers, which will be their first raise since fiscal year 2008. He also called for an expansion of voluntary prekindergarten in the state.
"As our economy improves, I expect this increase to be the start of what we hope will be greater and more frequent raises for our teachers," Bentley said in his televised address.
Bentley said he is seeking more money, but did not name an amount, from lawmakers to expand prekindergarten in the state.
"Children and schools must be given every chance to succeed. I truly believe by allowing greater access to a voluntary Pre-K education, we will change the lives of children in Alabama," Bentley said.
“So what is the State of our State? It is good. Good – because our people are good.
Bentley's call for the modest raise for teachers was met with mixed reaction from legislators. Some questioned the state's ability to afford it. While others said it was not enough.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, called Bentley's proposed raise for teachers "insulting" after lawmakers in 2011 raised what teachers and public employees pay for their retirement from 5 to 7.5 percent.
"It's pay reinstatement," Ford said. Democrats had been seeking a larger raise.
Bentley is seeking a teacher pay raise which was also sought by the Alabama Education Association. But he also expressed support for a school "flexibility" bill staunchly opposed by the AEA.
"We will give school districts flexibility without infringing on the rights and responsibilities of our classroom teachers," Bentley said.
The governor’s finance director will present the governor’s proposed budgets later this week. But in his speech he did not mention a pay raise for other state government workers. The General Fund is expected to have level funding next fiscal year.
Bentley’s inaugural State of the State address in 2011 was a recitation of the economic challenges facing the state. Bentley tonight praised the efforts to downsize state government, which now has 4,000 fewer state employees.
Things are looking brighter, he said. The governor said 26,000 new jobs have been recruited since he took office.
"Our state is making progress. Jobs are coming," he said.
The governor, without specifics, touched on current hot button political issues in Washington and in Montgomery. He said he was a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and said the "unborn" have a right to life.
Bentley took time during the speech to remember the Midland City bus driver killed in a hostage standoff when he tried to protect the children on his bus. He praised the courage of bus driver Charles Poland.
“So what is the State of our State? It is good. Good – because our people are good. Like the people of Dale County who wrapped their loving arms around the family of Charles Poland – a bus driver who gave his life to save the children,” Bentley said.
Bentley, who is just past the midway point of his four-year term, spent much of his third State of the State address looking back at the work of last two years.
He said the decision of Airbus, headquartered in France, to build airplanes in Mobile will forever change the economic landscape of the state. He said the rebuilding of the Wrangler plant in storm-ravaged Hackleburg is a symbol of hope and economic opportunity for families in Marion County.
Bentley also paid homage to the state’s struggle for civil rights, noting how the eyes of the world were on Alabama 50 years ago when four little girls were killed in a church bombing and Gov. George C. Wallace stood in the school house door.
"Today, we are ever-mindful of our turbulent past while we eagerly look forward to a new chapter in the state's history," he said.
Bentley invited the world to take another look at the state today.
"Alabama is our sweet home. And we want it to be a place where economic opportunity abounds and there are good-paying jobs, where children can get a good education, where counties and cities can build roads to compete for businesses and industries and where millions of taxpayer dollars are not being spent... they are being saved," Bentley said.