MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gov. Robert Bentley began the election-year session of the Alabama Legislature by defending his decision not to expand the state Medicaid program and by presenting better education and more jobs as the best strategy for escaping poverty.
In his State of the State speech Tuesday night, the Republican governor acknowledged that Alabama is one of the poorest states in America, with one in four children living in poverty.
"We can break the cycle of poverty, but not with programs that drag our communities and our people into the downward spiral of dependence," he said.
Bentley is a physician, but like other Republican governors in the South, he chose not to expand Alabama's Medicaid program under the federal health care law.
The Democratic minority in the Legislature has made expansion its chief priority as both the governor and many legislators seek re-election this year. Democrats say an expansion would bring health care to 300,000 Alabamians and create 30,000 jobs.
The governor recounted the 40,000 new jobs that have been announced since he took office in 2011, ranging from the giant Airbus aircraft assembly plant in Mobile to the Golden Dragon copper tubing plant in rural Wilcox County. He said that is the way to reduce poverty and make sure people have health care.
Two Republican leaders, House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston, praised Bentley's stand on using economic growth rather than Medicaid to help people.
"Our job is to get people off Medicaid, not on Medicaid," Hubbard said.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Bentley's speech was short on ideas to help Alabamians and long on Washington criticism. "He sounded like he was running for federal office. We need him to start worrying about Alabama, not Washington," Ford said.
Democratic Sen. Billy Beasley, a Clayton pharmacist who is considering running for governor, said if Medicaid is not expanded, many Alabamians working in low-paying jobs will continue without insurance while hospitals bear the cost of treating uninsured patients who show up in emergency rooms.
"This expansion will create jobs and help build a work force," Beasley said.
Bentley's 2010 campaign was based on job creation, and he sounded the theme again Tuesday night when he said he's forming a Small Business Advisory Council because many of the state's new jobs are created by small firms.
To make sure Alabama has trained workers available, Bentley proposed expanding Alabama's voluntary pre-kindergarten program, more dual enrollment programs where high school students can take two-year college courses at the same time, and creating a task force of business and industry leaders to advise educators on the workforce needs.
Bentley also proposed a 2 percent cost-of-living for teachers and other school workers for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. That would be on top of the 2 percent they got his year. For state employees, Bentley proposed a raise of up to 4 percent, but it would be conditioned upon the state taking in more revenue than is expected.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said state employees will not get a raise in Bentley's fourth year. "It's just political rhetoric to get him through the campaign season," he said.
Republican legislative leaders acknowledged that a raise is unlikely with General Fund budget revenue declining. They also said it's too early to tell about an increase for educators.
In a speech filled with criticism of federal policy, Bentley recalled the beginning of the War on Poverty 50 years ago and said it has done little to liberate people from poverty. Jumping to today, he said the federal health care law is stifling business growth and making it harder for people to find jobs.
"Our great nation is $17.2 trillion in debt and it increases by $2 billion every single day. That is why I cannot expand Medicaid in Alabama," Bentley said.
Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, scoffed at Bentley using the national debt as a reason not to expand Medicaid.
"Republicans love to talk about the deficit and the debt only when Barack Obama is in office," Figures said. "They sure didn't mind taking Obama's stimulus money. ... And they sure don't talk about (President) George W. Bush and his trillion-dollar war."
Though it was mostly before Bentley was in office, Alabama used hundreds of millions of dollars from Obama's 2009 stimulus package to shore up spending on Medicaid, higher education and other state services.