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Alabama’s governor, lawmakers look ahead after scandals

January 10, 2018

FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2017 file photo, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey speaks to the media in Montgomery, Ala. Ivey will take center stage on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, as she gives her first state of the state address since being catapulted to the governor’s office nine months ago. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, in her first State of the State address since scandal catapulted her into the governor’s office, told legislators Tuesday that the state has turned the page after a cloud of controversy enveloped Alabama government for much of the past two years.

Ivey, who took the governor’s office in April after the sudden resignation of then-Gov. Robert Bentley, addressed lawmakers on the opening day of the 2018 legislative session.

“Tomorrow marks nine full months since I unexpectedly became governor. A lot has happened since then. We have lifted the dark cloud, wounds have started healing, and the people’s faith in a government ‘for and by the people’ is being restored,” she said.

Ivey, who had been lieutenant governor, succeeded Bentley when he stepped down amid an impeachment investigation in the wake of an alleged affair with a staffer.

Amid rosier budget projection, Ivey’s speech focused on the state’s economic recovery and laid out a legislative agenda that included pay raises for teachers and state employees, increased funding for state prisons to avert a federal takeover of the state system, and developing rural broadband.

“Though we are almost two decades into the 21st century, many of our rural communities do not have adequate access to broadband,” Ivey said

The speech — which Ivey began with the quip “What a game!” in reference to the University of Alabama’s championship win over rival Georgia — was a crucial moment as Ivey seeks the office of governor in the upcoming 2018 election. The Republican will face challengers in the GOP primary and in the November general election. The new session will unfold as many lawmakers also face challengers in the looming elections.

“I thought the governor did a good job. The speech was very upbeat. She had a lot of exciting things to talk about. It’s a good story. It’s a good story to tell,” said Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper.

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, said she wanted to hear more from Ivey.

“It was definitely not Oprah Winfrey’s speech,” Coleman said. “I wanted to hear more leadership from her and more substance.”

After the turmoil caused by scandal, Alabama lawmakers said they looked forward to a legislative session they hope will be dull by comparison. The state’s former House speaker was convicted on ethics charges in 2016. In 2017, lawmakers began the impeachment push against Bentley. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended from office, leading to his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate that was punctuated by sexual misconduct accusations.

“It changes the whole mood of the people coming into session. We can focus on the issues of the state and not have to worry about the controversies going on on the side,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said.

Lawmakers began the session hearing fiscal forecasts that were a mixture of good news for the year and cautionary warnings about the future.

Finance Director Clinton Carter said the budgets have rebounded and surpassed pre-recession levels. That will allow lawmakers to dole out additional dollars instead of making tough decisions about where to cut. But he said the state also faces some looming costs and should be cautious in spending.

Alabama lawmakers must begin grappling with the price tag of complying with a federal judge’s order to overhaul mental health care in state prisons.

A major budgetary question mark for lawmakers — and one with ramifications for tens of thousands of Alabama children — is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides subsidized health insurance for children in lower-income working families.

Congress so far has only funded the program through March. House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said that if the state has to pick up even part of the cost of the program, that will cast a shadow over the entire budget.

“Revenues are good. The economy is good,” Marsh said. “The only unknown is what happens with the CHIP program,” Marsh said.

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