Bentley defends Medicaid stance in State of State speech
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 14, 2014 | 3945 views |  0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley delivers his State of the State address in the historic Old House Chamber in the Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Jay Sailors)
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley delivers his State of the State address in the historic Old House Chamber in the Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Jay Sailors)
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MONTGOMERY -- Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley defended his decision not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act Tuesday in an election-year State of the State address.

"We will not expand on a flawed and broken system that encourages greater reliance, not on self, but on government," Bentley said.

The governor addressed both houses of the Alabama Legislature at the Alabama State Capitol in the annual speech that marks the start of the Legislative session. With Bentley and every seat in the Legislature up for election this year, the event was also a sort of unofficial starter's pistol for the campaign season.

Bentley opened his speech by invoking the image of Wilcox County, a rural Black Belt county that is also, the governor said, the poorest county in the nation.

"The statistics are sobering," Bentley said. "The facts are indisputable. Never ending cycles of a need for jobs, better job skills and better education, plague our communities, counties and states as they have for years."

He went on to blast the federal "war on poverty" declared by the Johnson administration, saying government anti-poverty programs drag people into "a spider's web of dependence."

For nearly two years, Bentley has received daily criticism from Democrats for his refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Under the act, also known as Obamacare, states are encouraged to expand eligibility for the state-and-federal health insurance program, with the federal government picking up the tab for the first three years.

Both Democrats and Republicans have estimated that the expansion would add about 300,000 to the state's Medicaid rolls, which now top 1 million. Democrats say expansion would save lives of poor people and bring money into the state's economy. Republicans, led by Bentley, say the state can't expand a program that is already gobbling up the state's budget.

Bentley devoted much of his speech to a defense of his position on Medicaid expansion and a criticism of the federal government.

"The administration in Washington and the growing debt it continues to build will sink our country," he said. "It is okay to question the federal government. As a matter of fact it is a duty."

The governor also unveiled a few new policy decisions in the speech. He said the state would begin studying ways to exploit an estimated 7.5 billion barrels of oil locked in oil sands in "north central Alabama," an apparent reference to oil sands in Franklin and Colbert Counties.

Bentley also called for expansion of the state's pre-kindergarten classes, a program he championed last year, but didn't say how much money he'd request for the program. He called for a 2 percent pay raise for teachers, adding to the 2 percent pay raise the Legislature approved last year. And he called for a 4 percent pay raise for non-school state employees as a "conditional appropriation" -- meaning the raise would come if the state has more money than originally predicted.

Those ideas may face a tough climb in the Legislature. State budget officials announced Monday that the state's General Fund budget, which pays for non-education agencies, would have $1.7 billion to spend, $83 million less than in fiscal 2014. The education budget, which comes from a separate pool of funds, would likely grow by $134 million to $5.9 billion, but the state is still working to pay off money it borrowed from a state trust fund to shore up schools during the Great Recession.

Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he supported Bentley's 4 percent pay raise for state employees, but he doubted the money to pay for it would appear.

"I'd love to be able to do it, but we're already $83 million short in the General Fund," he said.

Democrats said the governor spent too much time trying to shift blame for Alabama's problems to Washington.

"There was too much emphasis on the federal government, when what the people want is someone who will focus on problems at home," said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston.

Finding someone to challenge Bentley in the election has proven a challenge for Democrats. Kevin Bass, a Fayette business owner who’s never held a political office, is the only Democrat to announce plans to run so far. Bentley, meanwhile, has amassed a campaign war chest of $2.7 million.

Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, said earlier this year that he was considering a run. After the governor's speech, he told The Star he would announce a decision in a couple of weeks.

"If I were governor, the first thing I'd do is issue an executive order expanding Medicaid," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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