MONTGOMERY — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Wednesday closed off any possibility of Medicaid expansion in his first press conference since his Tuesday night re-election.
“Medicaid expansion will not happen in Alabama,” Bentley said Wednesday morning on the steps of the State Capitol.
Bentley, the first Alabama governor in more than a century to preside over a Republican-dominated State Legislature, handily beat Democratic challenger Parker Griffith in the general election Tuesday night. Griffith and other Democrats had built their campaigns largely around the possibility of an expansion of the state-and-federal Medicaid program to provide government-backed health care coverage to more people — something called for, but not required, under the Affordable Care Act.
Bentley chose not to expand the program, saying Medicaid was a broken system that needs to be reformed before it could be expanded. Democrats said the expansion, largely federally-funded, would help the state’s economy. Bentley’s occasionally carefully parsed statements led to speculation that the governor might expand the program after reforming it, in a second term. But Bentley’s “will not happen” statement was all he had to say about the matter the morning after the election.
The governor said he’d spend the next term working on “chronic structural problems” in state government.
“The first four years, I have not been a caretaker governor,” he said. “I have put into place some organizational structures that I think will help the state of Alabama. We have moved government, we have changed government. Government doesn’t change unless you push it.”
In Bentley’s first term, Alabama eliminated thousands of state jobs, partly through consolidation of state agencies. Even so, a budget bomb looms next year: the $1.8 billion General Fund budget, which pays for all non-school agencies, is expected to fall short by $200 million.
Before the election, candidates would offer only broad outlines of their plans to fill the gap. Bentley said he would meet with lawmakers and his policy staff Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the state’s options. He said he would consider options that didn’t violate his “core principles.”
Opposition to new taxes has been a core principle of most candidates on the campaign trail, though Bentley and other state leaders have been rooting for a federal bill that would allow states to collect tax on online sales. Advocates of that proposal say online sales tax isn’t a new tax, but rather something shoppers already owe.
“We have to see what people will accept and what people would like to see,” he said.
It’s likely that Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, will be among the legislative leaders Bentley meets with this week for budget discussions. Attempts to reach Marsh were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Others in Calhoun County’s delegation say they’ve heard few new details about Bentley’s budget plans.
“It’s something we’ll probably talk about a little at the caucus meeting,” said Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks. Both Republicans and Democrats in the House plan to meet Thursday to discuss who’ll hold party leadership positions in the Legislature in the new term.
“I haven’t studied any proposal from the governor enough to make a comment,” said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston. Boyd said she’d seen no detailed plan from Bentley on how to deal with the $200 million gap.
“You know they’ll decide it among themselves, and we’ll have to deal with whatever they bring,” said Boyd, one of the small minority of Democrats in the House. With Republicans in the supermajority in both houses, Democrats have long complained that their positions on issues are ignored by legislative leadership. Tuesday’s Republican wave eroded Democrats’ standing even further.
Before the election, Bentley floated the idea of a statewide vote on a lottery, with some proceeds going to the General Fund. He has also said he’d consider a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to allow the state to collect revenue on the band’s casino business.
On Wednesday, Bentley struck an ambivalent note on either option.
“Do I think gambling is the best way to fund government? No, I really don’t,” he said. “I think jobs are the best way to fund government.”
For weeks, Bentley has hinted that he’ll propose a package of new incentives to bring business to the state. He has released few details of the plan, but on Wednesday he said it would move the state away from incentives that involve the state taking on debt.
“It’s kind of a pay-as-you-go type system,” he said.