MONTGOMERY — After two years of cutting back, Alabama's governor is proposing new spending for Alabama's public schools and his first pay raise for Alabama's teachers.
In his State of the State speech to legislators Tuesday night, Gov. Robert Bentley recommended expanding Alabama's pre-K program for 4-year-olds, while keeping attendance voluntary. He also proposed a 2.5 percent raise for educators — their first since a 7 percent pay hike in fall 2007.
"As our economy improves, I expect this increase to be the start of what we hoped will be greater and more frequent raises for our teachers," he said in his prepared text on the opening night of the 2013 legislative session.
Bentley took office in January 2011 when Alabama was reeling from the recession, and his first two years in office were marked by cutting budgets, reducing public employees, and streamlining state agencies. The Republican said the cost-cutting measures and an upturn in the economy — including 26,000 new jobs recruited during his two years — are bringing better times.
"Our state is making progress. Jobs are coming," he said.
He said the state budgets he will propose for the next fiscal year are slightly better than the current ones. But he did not propose a cost-of-living raise for state workers, who remain under a hiring freeze.
Bentley paused during his speech to remember the students killed at a Connecticut school in December and the school bus driver shot to death protecting children in Midland City last week. He said he has asked the state Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan for preventing and responding to active shooters. The department has already set up hotline for people to report suspicious activity, he said.
The governor said he will work to protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but he offered no specifics. He also talked about protecting "the unborn" without giving specifics.
Bentley endorsed two Republican-backed bills that would allow the state Department of Education to step in and manage school systems that are failing and that would give flexibility to school systems on how they comply with state education laws.
The second bill sets up the governor for a fight with the state teachers' group, the Alabama Education Association, which killed his bill last year to legalize charter schools.
Overall, Bentley's speech had fewer proposals and details than his previous two speeches. Instead, he recounted how the eyes of the world were on Alabama 50 years ago when four black girls were killed by a bomb at Birmingham church and Gov. George C. Wallace was trying to keep African-American students out of the University of Alabama.
"Today, we are ever-mindful of our turbulent past while we eagerly look forward to a new chapter in the state's history," he said.
He invited the world to take a look at Alabama today and said those who do will find "a state that works together, one that innovates and creates economic opportunity for all its citizens, regardless of color, regardless of gender, and regardless of politics. A place we can all call Sweet Home Alabama."
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