(Above: Gov. Bentley receives a standing ovation before delivering the 2014 State of the State address)
Thinking back over the last couple of years, I’d guess I’ve seen Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley deliver somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 speeches to large crowds — from Chambers of Commerce to College Republicans, Rotary Clubs to ALGOP banquets. I’ve also been in the Old House Chambers to witness three of his State of the State addresses firsthand.
Last night’s State of the State — his fourth — may have been his most impressive effort yet.
The only new initiative mentioned in the speech was the creation of a “Small Business Advisory Council” to provide resources and support to small business owners trying to expand their operations.
Bentley touted Alabama’s unemployment rate, 6.2%, which is the lowest in the southeast. But some economists are quick to point out that Alabama’s shrinking workforce is contributing to that number. The governor also ran down an extensive list of companies that have either come to Alabama or significantly expanded their footprint in the state since he took office in 2011.
But that’s the kind of stuff that politicians talk about everywhere they go, and it’s certainly not what made last night’s speech particularly compelling.
What set last night’s speech apart was that after three years in office, Gov. Bentley finally gave us peek into the core belief system that informs every decision he makes as the state’s chief executive. This was him laying out his philosophy of governance, rather than discussing the politics of governing.
Want to know why he’s got a borderline obsession with pre-k programs? Trying to figure out why he keeps hammering on the need to better train Alabama workers? Confused about his staunch opposition to expanding Medicaid? Last night’s speech puts it all in perspective.
Not to skip to the last page of the book, but everything comes back to Bentley’s belief that access to education and job opportunities will break the crippling cycle of poverty in this state far more effectively than any government program ever could.
With that in mind, here are three key moments from Gov. Bentley’s fourth State of the State Address:
1. Resolve to Reverse
The poorest county in the United States of America is located just 73 miles from where we sit tonight. If we were to drive a little over an hour from this historic hall we would find ourselves in Wilcox County where the median household income is below that of any other county in this nation. 11-thousand of our fellow Alabamians live in Wilcox County where the unemployment rate is chronically in double digits and consistently ranks above the national average.
That was the first paragraph of Gov. Bentley’s State of the State. And with that, the tone was set.
The governor immediately laid out some stunning statistics, including the fact that one in four Alabama children live in poverty and nearly 1-million Alabamians depend on food stamps.
Then Bentley delivered the sentence that set up the entire rest of the speech.
We recognize the challenges that we face and we resolve to reverse the trends that have troubled our state for decades.
2. Channeling Reagan
After Bentley directly addressed the issue of poverty in Alabama and committed to taking it head-on, the 53rd Governor of Alabama delivered seven sentences that could have come directly out of the mouth of America’s 40th president.
We will never see an end to the plague of poverty by offering a deeper dependence on a flawed government system. We will never help our poorest citizens, or our future generations by casting over them the net of federal government giveaway programs.
We can break the cycle of poverty, but not with programs that drag our communities and our people into the downward spiral of dependence.
That is why we will not expand on a flawed and broken system that encourages greater reliance, not on self, but on government, pulling even more of our vulnerable citizens into what President Ronald Reagan called the “spider’s web of dependency.”
We will help no one if we continually make decisions that ultimately offer little hope for our citizens while driving this great nation deeper into debt.
There is never freedom for the breadwinner who is dependent on the government.
Freedom is only found in the land that offers opportunity. That comes from hard work and sacrifice.
This was a Bentley that I don’t think we’ve seen before. This wasn’t the hometown, grandfatherly doctor telling the sick state to “take two and call me in the morning.” This was a governor with a fire in his belly delivering a full-throated indictment of government dependency.
3. The Final Word on Medicaid Expansion
This is where the rubber met the road last night. The soaring rhetoric was used to illustrate the thought process behind the governor’s position on expanding Medicaid under ObamaCare.
Bentley has endured intense criticism from various special interest groups, editorial writers and policy makers for his refusal to expand the costly program. It’s also been the rumor du jour among insiders that the governor would bide his time, get re-elected, then expand Medicaid to placate some of his advisers and Montgomery lobbyists.
He’s kept mostly quiet as his critics piled on, but last night he unloaded.
The Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare and Medicaid expansion is taking our nation deeper into the abyss of debt, and threatens to dismantle what I believe is one of the most trusted relationships, that of doctors and their patient.
Essential to Obamacare is Medicaid expansion – a federal government dependency program for the uninsured, which is administered by states. Since 1980, Medicaid spending has increased nationally by over 1,500-percent.
Here in Alabama, Medicaid takes up 35% of our General Fund.
Under Obamacare, Medicaid would grow even larger… Here in Alabama alone, an estimated 300,000 more people would be added to the Medicaid role, to a system that by our own admission is absolutely broken and flawed.
The federal government has said they will give us money to expand. But how can we believe the federal government will keep its word? The anything but Affordable Care Act has done nothing to gain our trust.
First, they told us we could keep our doctor – that turned out not to be true. Next, they told us we could keep our policy – that’s not true. Then they told us our premiums would not go up – nothing could be further from the truth. Now they are telling us we’ll get free money to expand Medicaid.
Ladies and Gentlemen, nothing is free. The money the federal government is spending with wild abandon is not federal dollars – those are your dollars, your hard-earned tax dollars. There is no difference between federal money and your money.
Our great nation is 17.2 trillion dollars in debt and it increases by 2-billion dollars every single day.
That is why I cannot expand Medicaid in Alabama. We will not bring hundreds of thousands into a system that is broken and buckling.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Gov. Bentley came back later in the speech to hammer the point home one more time.
Nearly 1 million people in Alabama are on Medicaid. It is not my goal to put more people on Medicaid but to have less. It is not my intent to put able-bodied individuals on a government dependency program.
Yellowhammer created a word cloud that highlights the words Gov. Bentley used the most during his State of the State address. It can be seen below. To read the entire text of the speech, visit the Governor’s website.
Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims