BY KIM CHANDLER
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gov. Robert Bentley on the 2010 campaign trail promised recession-weary voters that he would not take a paycheck until the state reached "full employment."
Twenty-five months after his inauguration Bentley is still working for free. But he said the state's economy has made dramatic improvements.
"We are poised in this state to make tremendous gains," Bentley said.
Sitting in his Capitol office at the midpoint of a term few initially thought he could win, Alabama's unexpected governor looked back at the last two years with pride — and a touch of frustration — and said he is confident what the next two years, or perhaps more, would bring for his administration.
Bentley praised efforts to downsize government, find savings and recruit industry. He also defended his decision not to expand the state's Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.
Asked to name his greatest accomplishment, Bentley pointed to successes in economic recruitment and keeping the ship of state government afloat in stormy economic waters without going to voters for tax increases.
"We've announced more than 27,000 new, future jobs for the state of Alabama. That's not counting small businesses," Bentley said. Bentley said he has set an ambitious goal to trim $1 billion in spending from Alabama's budgets.
Bentley promised not to take a salary until unemployment hit 5.2 percent. The state's unemployment rate, which spiked to 10.6 percent at the end of 2009, has dropped to a four-year low, 7.1 percent in December. Though lower, it remains above levels from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Bentley counted the decision of Airbus to build a plant in Mobile after getting a $158 million incentive package as one of the significant moments of his first two years in office.
"When we recruited Airbus, we were the talk of the world," Bentley said.
But Bentley said he was just as excited about two smaller projects, the rebuilding of the Wrangler plant in tornado-ravaged Hackleburg and the recruitment of a Chinese copper tubing plant, which could bring 300-500 jobs to impoverished Wilcox County.
"To me that was up there with Airbus because I know how it is going to affect the lives of the people in Hackleburg and in Wilcox County," Bentley said.
But Bentley acknowledged the pace of the economic recovery has been frustrating.
"We've just been in a deep long recession in this country. But it is going to turn around at some point. And when it turns around, we are going to do well," Bentley said.
Bentley, a retired dermatologist from Tuscaloosa, was a two-term member of the Alabama House of Representatives with little name recognition when he launched his campaign for governor. "Nobody but the Lord and my oldest granddaughter," expected the win, Bentley has said. He pulled off a primary upset after the Alabama Education Association funded attack ads against Republican front-runner Bradley Byrne.
He is the first Republican governor to also have a GOP-controlled Legislature for his four-year term. Bentley signed bill after bill approved by lawmakers as the new GOP majority steamrolled through its first year.
His second year saw two legislative losses with the defeat of a charter school bill and industrial incentive legislation.
Many of the bills he signed had also been priorities for the new GOP legislative majority. But one of the controversial decisions rested squarely on his shoulders.
Bentley announced last year that he would not expand Alabama's Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act — which would cover more than 250,000 Alabamians — and he would also not set up a state health care exchange under the federal healthcare overhaul.
Critics said an expansion would insure hundreds of thousands in the poor state and would almost be entirely paid for by the federal government. Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said last week that those who oppose expanding Medicaid were "standing in the hospital door, keeping hundreds of thousands from being able to go to hospitals."
Bentley said the refusal is a way of standing up to the new federal health care law.
"It gives us a way of pushing back on this legislation to give us some concessions and some changes we feel are necessary," Bentley said.
While some other GOP governors — including Michigan Gov. Rick Synder and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — have changed course and embraced the Medicaid expansion, Bentley has stood by his decision.
"They have, but thank goodness I live in a state that is the most conservative in the country, so I have some cover," Bentley said, adding quickly that he didn't "do things politically."
Bentley said he would not expand a broken system. He said he took an oath as a physician to do no harm but he also took an oath on the Alabama Capitol steps.
"When you talk about doing no harm, I believe that this piece of legislation harms not only Alabama, and businesses in Alabama, I think it harms the entire nation because we can't afford it."
"People say you are going to get billions and billions of dollars of free money. It is not free. Somebody is paying for it and it's taxpayers or it's China cause we're borrowing money every day to keep this country afloat."
Bentley said he believed the "defining moment" of his first two years came just 100 days into his governorship when a wave of killer tornadoes swept the state on April 27, 2011. More than 200 people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed.
"The way we dealt with the tornadoes helped people decide whether they had a leader as a governor or not, Bentley said.
Asked what he would do differently over the last two years, Bentley, without naming names, suggested difficulty with a few personnel decisions but did not elaborate. He also acknowledged a bit of a learning curve in working with the Legislature.
"We had a brand new Legislature that had never been in the majority before. ... Well, you have to learn how to govern. You can't always be the challengers," Bentley said.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, had words of praise for Bentley.
"I think the governor has done a great job. I think the people of Alabama believe it as well by just looking at his approval ratings," Hubbard said.
"I'd say a C-minus to a D-plus," said House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden.
"He started off with a bang and he has gone downhill ever since," Ford said. Ford was critical of Bentley's decision not to expand Medicaid.
Natalie Davis, a pollster and political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College, said voters have a comfort with Bentley partly because he has not done anything to shake them up.
"There are no highs and lows. There is just mediocrity," Davis said of his administration.
Looking forward to the next two years, Bentley said he is excited by the prospects for the state, although he acknowledges the state still faces serious budget and economic challenges.
One of the challenges is the effort to overhaul and contain costs in the state's Medicaid program. Bentley said he will "most likely" follow the recommendations of his advisory commission on Medicaid to divide the state into regions of community-based managed care networks.
Bentley said as the economy improves he hopes to commit more dollars to the state's First Class voluntary pre-kindergarten program. The program has been hailed as a model but with a small budget only reaches about 6 percent of Alabama's 4-year-olds.
Bentley has proposed another $12.5 million budget increase which would let the program add 2,000 students. He hopes the money will be available to eventually cover all 4-year-olds.
Bentley declined to assign a letter grade for the first two years.
"It's hard to grade yourself. I think you have to ask the people how they think you're doing," Bentley said.
"I'll really let them make that judgment, and they will."
Information from: The Birmingham News