MONTGOMERY — Ask Gov. Robert Bentley about highlights from his first two years in office, and he’ll most likely talk about jobs.
He will mention creating new ones, such as the 26,000 cited in his State of the State address earlier this month, or keeping jobs that could have been lost when Alabama companies were damaged by the April 2011 tornadoes, had the state not helped them rebuild.
He’ll even refer to jobs that have been lost in state government as a result of cutbacks and government “rightsizing,” another hallmark of his administration to date. He and other GOP leaders are on a mission to save the state $1 billion, though some of the savings won’t be seen for years and some are the result of job cuts.
Creating jobs is Bentley’s No. 1 priority.
“We get sidetracked by other little things, but let me tell you there is nothing more important than someone having a job and putting food on the table,” Bentley told the TimesDaily last week during an interview in his office.
Bentley, 70, is a former Alabama House member and physician from Tuscaloosa. He was elected in 2010 with a few campaign promises: No tax hikes for Alabamians and no paycheck for him until the state’s unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent, considered a level of stable employment.
Two years later, he hasn’t raised taxes despite declining and now flat-lining general fund revenues (though there have been some fee increases for using state government); and so far, despite the job creation, he’s working for room and board.
He’s the first Republican governor to have the benefit of a Republican majority in the Alabama House, but Bentley hasn’t gotten everything he has wanted. If he had, charter schools would be setting up in the state and there would be one budget funding all state operations.
The governor, who is known for his love of orange soda, also loves getting out of the capital city.
“Around Montgomery, everyone thinks they know what the rest of the state is like, and it is so refreshing to get out of Montgomery and go to small towns around the state and go speak at churches and go to diners and Waffle Houses and McDonald’s and just meet people,” Bentley said.
“It is so refreshing to get outside Montgomery where they think they run the government.”
Soon after he was elected, he floated the idea of combining the state’s two budgets. The idea — one most economists say is a good one — quickly died.
“I still believe one budget is the best way to handle our budgeting situation, with some protections for our education system,” Bentley said. “There has to be some growth money in the general fund. If we don’t have some growth taxes, it is going to continue to languish as it has for years.”
Alabama is one of two states that has separate budgets for education and non-education agencies. The two are funded by different revenue streams, and education’s is more lucrative.
“It’s one of those things that you can push for and believe in, but the votes just aren’t there,” Bentley said. “Anyone dealing with education would be against it.”
Bentley had another education-related failure last year when after months of discussions in the Legislature, his push for charter schools, carried by Republican lawmakers, died.
“It didn’t pass because there was no groundswell of support for charter schools,” he said. “Even in areas of the state where schools may perform poorly, people see them as their schools and they’re very proud of their schools.”
He said the failure didn’t have anything to do with the Alabama Education Association’s campaign against it.
“Even among Republicans, we have a lot of different personalities and priorities,” Bentley said. “I’m glad we’re not all alike.”
Bentley said he has a great working relationship with his Republican colleagues, including House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh.
Bentley and Hubbard separately said the same thing about each other: They get along better now as governor and speaker than they did as representatives.
“Sometimes, he wasn’t with us on issues and that frustrated me,” said Hubbard, who was minority leader when Bentley was a representative.
Now, he said, the three men work pretty well together. Hubbard said he recently played “mediator” when Bentley and Marsh had different ideas on how to trim the number of state law enforcement agencies.
Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University, said that prior to the 2010 election, if asked who the major players in Montgomery were, he would have said Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, Paul Hubbert of the AEA and Gov. Bob Riley.
“Since 2010, I don’t hear the list of names anymore. I hear one name: Mike Hubbard,” Brown said.
“If there is a power broker, if there is a new King of Goat Hill, it is Mike Hubbard,” Brown said, referring to the Capitol site’s former use as pastureland.
That’s not to say that Bentley isn’t powerful, he said. “But perception is power; if people think you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”
For his part, Hubbard says he has no desire to be a power player.
“I want to get things done — we have 136 years of pent-up frustration, so we have a lot to get done,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Roger Bedford, of Russellville, doesn’t buy it.
“I think Speaker Hubbard sees Gov. Bentley as in his way to being governor,” Bedford said last week.
Longtime state Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said recently that Bentley has more clout than he expected him to have.
“My concern was, ‘Was he tough enough to be the governor?’ When he was in the Legislature, he wasn’t one of the fierce guys,” Greer said. “He didn’t get out there and scream and holler like some of them.”
Bentley said Alabamians won’t see him cuss and carry-on. But he does get mad. He just doesn’t hold a grudge, he said.
“I have to deal with too many problems to stay mad,” he said.
And just because Bentley is the biggest “R” in a capital full of them doesn’t mean some don’t question him publicly. Earlier this month, newly re-elected Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore made public a letter he’d written Bentley about his proposed 2014 funding for the court system and saying it would lead to layoffs.
Moore and Bentley recently rooted for opposing candidates to lead the GOP party in the state.
“Gov. Bentley is not an enemy of mine at all. We’re friends,” Moore said recently. “I respect what he’s trying to do; he has a hard job. But I have to stand up for my branch.”
Democrats in the Senate have one goal this session: Convince Bentley to change his mind about expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act in order to cover about 300,000 more poor Alabamians. Or at least raise a lot of noise about his decision not to.
While several other Republican governors have recently reversed course and are now opting in on the expansion — Florida Gov. Rick Scott last week said he can’t “in good conscience deny the uninsured access to care” — Bentley appears to be staying his course.
“I want to fix Medicaid. I want our system to work better,” Bentley said about the system that will cost the state more than $600 million this fiscal year. He is studying a report on how to overhaul the system and said he won’t expand the system as it currently stands.
Bentley also has called the ACA one of the worst pieces of legislation ever.
“I am truly fighting the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act,” he added.
Bentley never refers to it as “Obamacare” because he says it’s not personal. And using the entire name lets Bentley point out that he thinks it is neither protecting patients, affordable or good health care.
Democrats in the House have criticized Bentley and other GOP members for not considering raising taxes, including the state’s cigarette tax. But Bentley said he’s never regretted his pledge not to.
“Obviously, if we had more money, it would make the job easier,” he said. “But I’ve been in the Legislature when we had more money for education than we knew what to do with and all we did was fight over it.”
He says he doesn’t necessarily see the tough economic times the state has been through as a bad thing, because it has forced leaders to make tough, but needed choices.
As far as dealing with Democrats now, well, there’s some role reversal after 2010.
“We have such a supermajority of Republicans in the House and Senate, (Democrats) really don’t play a major role in what gets passed,” Bentley said. “Like when I was there in the minority, we were not able to get things passed that we wished to get passed.”
Asked to grade the governor, Bedford gave him a “B+.”
Bedford is disappointed in Bentley over Medicaid, saying it would be an economic boost for the state by pumping in more federal dollars and creating more jobs in health care. The state’s anti-illegal immigration law is another negative in the two years, he said.
“(Bentley) could have had a workable bill that didn’t give Alabama such a black eye,” said Bedford, who voted for the original bill in 2011.
But Bedford gives Bentley high marks for his job creation efforts and his response to the tornadoes.
“I made visits with him to northwest Alabama,” Bedford said. “It was not a photo opportunity for him, it was ‘I’m your governor, how can I help?’ ”
Does Bentley want to continue to be governor in 2015? He knows the answer, he said, but he’s just not talking about it yet. He expects to make an announcement in the next month or so.
If he does run, Hubbard said he’ll support him.
Brown said it’s hard to judge the effectiveness of governors until they’re a few years removed from the job.
“But I can’t think of any big mistakes or big victories of this governor,” Brown said. “His persona and his personality are good as a politician, and I think the voters generally like him. I think he’s seen as competent, but not flashy.”
If he does run, Bentley will be looking for the support of those small-town people outside Montgomery that he has met and visited with over the last few years.
“The people out there run the government. They’re the ones that vote for you,” he said. “The people in Montgomery don’t elect you; they just think they do.”
Mary Sell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gov. Robert Bentley
Born in 1943 and raised in Shelby County; graduated from the University of Alabama School of Medicine; captain in the Air Force; after his military service, he completed his dermatology residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Moved to Tuscaloosa in 1974 and opened a dermatology practice.
Before becoming governor in 2011, he served two terms representing Tuscaloosa in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Bentley and his wife of more than 40 years, Dianne, have four sons and six granddaughters