MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey called for pay raises for teachers, school employees and other government workers in her first State of the State address Tuesday evening.
"It is long past time for us to honor their service with better pay," Ivey said.
Ivey didn't specify how much of an increase she'd propose for state workers, though budget numbers released earlier in the day suggest an increase of 2 to 3 percent.
It was Ivey’s first time to deliver a State of the State, an annual address by the governor on the first day of every year's legislative session. Lawmakers, the governor's staff and reporters crowded standing-room-only in the old House chamber at the State Capitol to hear her speak.
Just nine months ago, a similar crowd assembled in the Senate chamber across the hall as Ivey, formerly lieutenant governor, was sworn in to succeed Robert Bentley, who resigned as governor after a lengthy scandal over an alleged affair with an aide. At that ceremony and afterward, Ivey promised to "right the ship of state."
“Most governors have three months to prepare,” Ivey said Tuesday night. “I had three hours.”
A rising economic tide came to her aid. The state's unemployment rate dropped to its lowest rate in a decade in the months after Ivey came to office, buoyed by a growing national economy. The surge brought new revenue to the state's cash-strapped budgets, bringing a likely break from the budget crises that have roiled the state in the past few years.
Ivey highlighted the state's industrial recruiting efforts, touting a Kimber firearms plant in Troy that is expected to bring 366 jobs. She didn't mention reports in the news media, released an hour before the speech, that claimed a Toyota and Mazda plant had been approved for Limestone County, potentially bringing another 4,000 jobs.
There were few numbers at all in Ivey's short address. She did call for a $23 million increase in the state’s growing pre-kindergarten program, continuing growth that was a priority for Bentley.
The speech was notable for what it lacked. Bentley as governor often used the State of the State to outline his opposition to Obama administration proposals such as the Affordable Care Act. Ivey stayed largely on state issues, with no mention of partisan divides.
That wasn’t lost on observers across the political aisle from Ivey.
“That speech, in my opinion, wasn’t focused on one party,” said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston. “It was focused on why we should serve.”
The speech comes at the opening of a legislative session that lawmakers are hoping to turn into an era of good feelings. Most statewide offices and all 140 legislative seats are open for re-election in November, and legislators have said openly that they hope for a noncontroversial session that will address budgets and perhaps not much else.
They expect to increase funding for Medicaid and the state's troubled prison system, though Ivey made no mention of the prison major prison-building plans that have been proposed, and shot down, in previous years.
“For far too long we have run our state’s prison system in a way that risks a takeover by the federal courts,” Ivey said. She said she's hired commissions to study staffing, pay and facilities in the prison system.
One wild card in the budget is congressional approval of funding for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, which pays for health care for around 150,000 low- and moderate-income kids in Alabama. Congress has yet to approve long-term funding to continue the program; if it’s shut down, Medicaid could pick up around half of those kids, while the other half would lose their health coverage.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said CHIP was the only unknown in the budget and the only threat to pay raises.
“The only thing that could throw a wrench in it at this point is the CHIP program,” he said.
Democrats said they hoped for a larger pay raise than Ivey's numbers seemed to suggest. Still, they seemed prepared to support Ivey's plan.
"The governor's taking a stride in the right direction," House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said in Tuesday afternoon, before the speech but after the pay raise plan emerged in budget hearings.
Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, acknowledged that the election year will play a role in lawmaker’s thinking about the proposed pay raise. Still, he said, it’s an obvious thing to do now that the state is seeing healthy revenues again.
“It’s the fact that we’ve got the money to do it, and we won’t have to cut anything else,” he said.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, described pay raises of 2 percent or 3 percent as “realistic targets.”
“The thing that we’ve got to do is make sure that we don’t overspend,” he said.