MONTGOMERY, Ala. — For Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, 2013 was the year his administration's numbers headed in the right direction and set up a strong re-election campaign for 2014.
The Republican governor was elected in 2010 on a jobs platform, and he says there hasn't been a day since when he hasn't worked on that goal.
"Job creation is always number one," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Alabama's unemployment rate has dropped from 9.1 percent when Bentley took office in January 2011 to 6.2 percent in November. The number of employed has declined from 199,536 to 132,381. Part of the decline is due to more people working and part is due to Alabama's civilian labor force shrinking.
Bentley calls himself "the salesman for the state," and so far his administration has announced new and expanding companies will provide more than 40,000 jobs. Many of those jobs are in factories that are still being built and won't be filled until 2014 or later. For Bentley, who was elected on a promise of not taking a paycheck until unemployment drops to 5.2 percent, more jobs in a second term could bring a payday.
For 2014, Alabama is among the states competing for Boeing's new aircraft plant. Bentley said he doesn't know what Alabama's chances are for landing the plant in Huntsville, but he believes Alabama's undisclosed offer is competitive.
During 2013, Bentley and Republican legislative leaders reached their goal of saving the state $1 billion. About three-fourths came from reducing the state workforce more than 11 percent, making changes in public employees' health insurance and retirement plans, and not awarding merit raises.
"State government was broke when Republicans entered office in 2011, but together with legislative leaders we took a serious look at how we could find savings in state government," Bentley said.
In 2013, Bentley opened the first projects built with his $1 billion road and bridge construction program. The Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program is the largest road construction program in state history, and construction on hundreds of its projects will be visible to voters during the 2014 elections.
Bentley says that no matter what happens in the elections, his road program will always be compared with Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom's farm-to-market road program more than 50 years ago and will be the major thing that history books note about his administration.
During the 2013 legislative session, Bentley got bipartisan support for legislation restructuring the state Medicaid program by dividing it into regional operations and going from a fee-for-service system to an outcome-based system. The new structure won't be in effect until after the 2014 elections, but Bentley, a physician, said "the outcomes for patients will be better because they will be managed."
Also during the 2013 legislative session, Bentley got funds to expand the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten program and says he will seek another expansion in the 2014 session beginning Jan. 14. He also got funding for a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for education employees, their first of his administration, and he says he will seek another raise in the upcoming session. During 2013, he announced that a freeze on merit raises for state employees would be lifted for the first time during his administration. That removal takes effect Wednesday.
During 2013, Bentley had hoped to get the Legislature to place new controls on payday lenders, but that didn't happen. Instead, Bentley's state Banking Department used its regulatory authority to start setting up a database to make sure the lenders didn't give consumers multiple loans that exceed the state's $500 limit.
"That payday loan reform was significant and we were able to do it with regulation," he said in an interview.
Bentley wasn't able to get around another legislative setback. He supported the Legislature's passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, but he wanted lawmakers to delay for two years the act's tax credits for families that move their children from failing public schools to private schools or non-failing public schools. Bentley's fellow Republicans in the Legislature rejected his idea overwhelmingly, and the tax credits began with the fall term of 2013.
Looking ahead, Bentley said he hopes to set aside money in 2014 to help high school students interested in technical fields pursue dual enrollment in their local community college. "We particularly want it for students who could not afford college otherwise," he said.
For the physician governor, another goal is making Alabamians healthier by addressing problems like obesity and high blood pressure. Bentley, who lost 20 pounds as he geared up for the 2014 election, said that goal will likely have to wait until the confusion with the national health care law dies down. "That's a goal, that if I have the opportunity to serve again, that I truly do want to concentrate on," he said.
For the 2014 election, Bentley has no well-known opponent. He's raised $2.6 million for re-election, while his Republican primary opponent, former Morgan County Commissioner Stacy George, has less than $2,000. Former minor league baseball player Kevin Bass of Fayette is the only Democrat who has announced, but he hasn't reported any fundraising yet.
"I am surprised," Bentley said.
He didn't figure Alabama would have nine candidates for governor like it did in 2010 when there was no incumbent running, but he did expect to have more opposition by now.
Bentley attributes the small field to him traveling the state frequently and always taking time to talk to people about what they need and what they want the state to do. "The majority of the people of the state and I have made a good connection," he said.