Gov. Robert Bentley advocated expansion of prekindergarten and his plan to overhaul the state’s prison system during his State of the State address tonight.
The governor stressed the need to address entrenched poverty and said he would create a task force to study removal of the sales tax on groceries.
Bentley, who had opposed Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, praised the Trump administration, including Trump’s stance on immigration, and vowed to oppose “sanctuary” cities.
It was the seventh State of the State address for the governor, who was elected in 2010.
Bentley devoted the first part of his speech to what he described as successful efforts to recruit jobs and build the state’s economy.
The governor said the state’s labor force is the largest it’s been in five years. Bentley said his administration has recruited and landed more than 92,000 “well-paying jobs.”
The governor talked about twice sending Alabama National Guard soldiers to help guard the U.S.-Mexican border last year.
Bentley praised President Trump for his “decisive and necessary actions to support our nation’s immigration laws.”
The governor said Alabama would not support “sanctuary cities” or “institutions that harbor or shelter illegal immigrants.”
Bentley said he’s encouraged because he believes the Trump administration will reduce regulatory burdens and give states more control over their affairs.
“Our country is made up of 50 sovereign states, and governors like myself, have stood firm while costly mandates were shoved down our throats, and said collectively ‘no more.’ ” Bentley said.
Bentley is a longtime advocate of expanding the state’s prekindergarten program and invited three teachers from Zion Chapel School in Coffee County, who got a standing ovation.
“Pre-K is truly a success story and our four-year-olds are thriving,” Bentley said.
The governor is seeking a $20 million increase in prekindergarten to expand its availability.
Bentley said he would support an initiative to adopt some of the successful approaches to teaching used in prekindergarten for use in classes through third grade.
Bentley has said his top priority for this year is his plan to borrow $800 million to build four new state prisons. Thirteen of the 15 men’s prisons would close and Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women would be replaced.
During his speech tonight, Bentley described what he said were deteriorating and dangerous conditions and caused the prisons “deadly.”
“The men and women inside these prison walls are there for just punishment,” Bentley said. “But they are not there to slip further into a cycle of dependency, crime, violence and hopelessness.”
The governor introduced two former inmates who are now prison ministers.
“We cannot afford to wait any longer to solve this lingering, difficult and deadly problem,” Bentley said.
Bentley said Alabama is one of only four states that does not provide a break in its sales tax on food. He said the tax places a greater burden on low-income families.
The governor said a task force of experts on education, healthcare, taxation and revenue, and the economy will study best practices from comparable states and give him a recommendation this fall.
“I want to remove the state tax on food,” Bentley said. “Every family in Alabama should be able to find a good job and feed their families without being overly taxed.”
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, who has repeatedly proposed bills to exempt food from the state sales tax, said he was pleased to hear Bentley bring up the issue.
“I know he talked about setting up some kind of committee,” Knight said. “But if he calls me I’ve got enough information on that and I will supply him all the information that’s needed.”
Alabama Arise State Coordinator Kimble Forrister issued a statement in support of Bentley’s call for an end to the sales tax on food.
Alabama Arise, which advocates for policies that would benefit low-income families, has called for that change for many years.
“Ending the state grocery tax would boost the economy and help millions of Alabama families make ends meet,” Forrister said. “We’re glad the governor recognized the need for Alabama to untax groceries, and we hope lawmakers will move quickly to end this regressive tax once and for all.”
Knight said he was discouraged when Bentley talked about supporting Trump’s immigration policies and not supporting sanctuary cities.
“As we try to attract industry here, and especially when we have plants like Hyundai and Mercedes, bringing up that issue and talking about it I don’t think is very helpful,” Knight said.
Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said Bentley gave a colorful speech with some personal touches but said it was hollow on substance.
“I was happy to hear him talk about the sales tax on food,” Ross said. “I’m glad he’s finally joined us because of course Democrats have been pushing for removing the sales tax on food for years.”
Ross said he will not support the governor’s prison plan because of the cost and because he said there are better solutions to overcrowded prisons.
“Democrats are opposed to saddling the citizens of the state of Alabama to what could possibly be $1.5 billion worth of debt for 30 years without looking at sensible solutions,” Ross said.
Ross said changes are needed in state policies such as having fewer nonviolent offenders in prison and more community reentry programs.
House Speaker Mac McCuthcheon, R-Monrovia, said liked the tone of Bentley’s speech.
“He was promoting unity and calling people to come together and work together on the issues we have,” McCutcheon said. “It was a good message.”
Bentley got a standing ovation at the end of the hour-long speech.