All politicians make them. Most break at least some of them -– if only because, after election, they find that elected officials aren’t as powerful as they seem.
Gov. Robert Bentley is no exception. Swept into the governor’s office on his reputation as a disciplined, capable outsider –- the doctor for Alabama’s ills –- Bentley committed dozens of pledges to print before his election.
A year ago, the website BamaFactCheck.com, a fact-checking site administered by The Anniston Star, jotted down some of those promises –- many of them collected from Bentley’s old campaign website and a policy document he published before his run. The goal was to check in later and see how many of the promises the good doctor lived up to.
As Bentley nears a year in office, he has hit some of the high points of his original plan and missed others. Some –- like the creation of 250,000 new jobs, may have been beyond anyone’s power to fulfill in a harsh budget year.
Below is a summary of some of the governor’s promises, and whether they came to pass.
The salary pledge
Bentley rode into power largely on the state’s anxiety about the economy, and on his pledge not to take a day of pay until Alabama reached full employment. His campaign ads didn’t define “full employment,” but Bentley later said he defined it as 5 percent unemployment, a healthy pre-recession figure.
So far, Bentley has lived up to the pledge. State records show that he has collected only about $2,100 in travel reimbursements from state coffers during his term as governor. The governor’s salary is about $112,000. So far, Bentley has collected $2 in salary, a placeholder figure.
Of course, the other way for Bentley to live up to the pledge would be to reduce unemployment and pick up a paycheck.
That has proven difficult. In November 2011, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent, an improvement over the 9.3 percent employment in January, when he was inaugurated – and an improvement over the 9.1 percent rate posted in November 2010. It’s also significantly better than in 2008 and 2009, when jobless rates stayed mostly in the double digits and peaked above 11 percent.
But it’s still a long way from Bentley’s goal – or even the 7 percent Alabama employment that has been more typical of earlier, less severe recessions.
In policy documents released during the campaign, Bentley promised to create 250,000 jobs. As of October 2011, there were 38,600 more employed Alabamians in October than in January, when Bentley was inaugurated.
Small business director
One thing that is seemingly within the governor’s power is the creation of a statewide director for small business. That’s something Bentley pledged to do during the campaign. So far, it hasn’t happened, though.
“We have not put out that executive order yet,” Bentley acknowledged in an interview in December. He said “some of the details are being worked on,” but didn’t offer a timeline for announcement of an appointment to the position.
In recent weeks, Bentley has expressed concern about the effects of HB56, Alabama’s illegal immigration law, saying that recent arrests of foreign auto workers make the state “look bad.” He has also said he supports revisions of the law to address businesses’ concerns, though he has also said he won’t support a repeal of the law.
But when Bentley was running for office, he promised to reform the state’s immigration policy –- and the current bill fulfills many of those promises. On his campaign website, Bentley made the following promises.
-- “I will seek a legal presumption that all illegal aliens are flight risks for bail purposes.”
-- “I will require all governmental agencies to participate in E-Verify.”
-- “I will require state contractors to participate in E- Verify in order to qualify for state contracts.”
-- “I will train law enforcement officials on immigration laws and ensure state officials turn over all illegal aliens arrested in Alabama to the federal government.”
The immigration law made good on all of those problems, except the last one. As the law’s effective date neared in late summer, prosecutors and law enforcement officials openly fretted about the gray areas in the bill. They were particularly concerned about a provision that allows people to sue state agencies for too-lax enforcement.
After two prominent incidents – when a Mercedes executive and a Honda worker got caught up in the immigration dragnet – Bentley ordered statewide training for all 16,000 uniformed officers on how to comply with the new law.
A dermatologist before he entered politics, Bentley in 2009 proposed a fairly detailed set of proposals to change health care in Alabama. Bentley never sold his plan as health care “reform” -– in fact, opposition to President Obama’s more comprehensive federal health care reform plan was a major plank in Bentley’s platform –- the dermatologist did have a raft of suggestions about how to tweak medicine and medical schools. Among his proposed changes:
-- Allowing people to keep their medical records on thumb drives.
-- Setting up a statewide health insurance exchange to allow residents to buy insurance along with a large pool of other customers.
-- Setting aside a quarter of medical school slots for internists, OB/GYNs and other primary care physicians, to ease a shortage of primary care doctors.
-- Paying a $40,000 scholarship to each student in those primary-care fields.
Where Bentley’s promises came true, they were spurred on largely by federal health care reform and the storm of controversy around it. In June, Bentley created the Alabama Health Insurance Exchange Commission, to study the creation of a statewide health insurance exchange –- something the federal health reform law encourages. And the state did, as Bentley promised, oppose that same federal health care plan, becoming a party to a lawsuit in federal court to block Obama’s plan.
Much of the rest of Bentley’s plan didn’t come to pass. In a December interview with the Star, Bentley acknowledged that his plans for medical scholarships never got off the ground, though he expressed eagerness to implement his plan. He claimed his reforms to medical education wouldn’t cost the state anything, saying the scholarships could be paid for by donations from businesses and local governments.
Alabama’s peculiar practice of writing budgets and then revising them downward in mid-year, known as proration, has long been the bane of state employees’ existence. Because state revenues come largely from sales and income taxes –- both of which are more volatile than property tax –- revenues are often lower than predicted, forcing the governor to intervene with budget cuts before year’s end.
Bentley promised in 2010 to propose a 15-year rolling reserve budget, which would base the state’s budget on a 15-year average of state income. Revenue beyond the 15-year projection would go into a reserve fund to help out in lean years.
Ideally, the 15-year budget would end proration, by smoothing out high and low years. Critics have said the 15-year plan leads to budget numbers that are too low, and could give schools less money than the state’s growth demands.
But the plan did pass the Legislature, leading GOP officials to declare “the end of proration.”
“I believe the people of Alabama need to decide at the ballot box on a YES or NO vote whether to allow gambling or abolish all forms of gambling,” Bentley said on his website.
The only way to pose such a question at the ballot box is through a constitutional amendment. No such amendment happened in 2011.
In a December interview with The Star, Bentley was frank about why.
“That is going to have to be left to the Legislature,” he said. “It might have occurred if it hadn’t been for the trial situation.”
For much of 2011, several Montgomery lobbyists and state legislators faced trial on allegations of bribery in an earlier vote to propose a gambling-related amendment. The trial made gambling a lightning-rod issue that no one was willing to touch in 2011.
“I will ensure that abortion in Alabama is limited only to cases in which the mother's life is in danger,” Bentley said on his campaign website in 2010.
Bentley and his fellow Republicans didn’t achieve that goal, but it wasn’t for want of trying. In the 2010 session, the Legislature passed a bill that bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The bill was just one of several anti-abortion bills proposed in 2011, including a bill that would have declared that personhood begins at conception -– effectively a ban on abortion altogether. The clock ran out on those measures, which were still being debated on the last day of the legislative session.
The “personhood” bill will be back next year. It’s already pre-filed in the Senate.