Governor outlines plans for session

Published 9:49 pm Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gov. Bob Riley said growing the economy and reforming education and ethics would be areas he would focus on during his last year in office.

Riley outlined his plans for the upcoming legislative session via telephone Thursday.

The governor said now is the time to fundamentally change our state’s education system for the better. He said one way to do that is to pass charter school legislation.

“It may be controversial, but something we need to do in Alabama is pass charter school legislation,” said Riley.

Allowing charter schools would position Alabama to better compete for millions of dollars in federal grants, according to the governor.

One federal program called “Race to the Top” rewards states that are showing innovation and implementing education reforms.

Riley said Alabama could collect $200 million from the program.

Riley said the lack of charter schools in Alabama — one of 11 states that don’t allow the schools — could put the state at a disadvantage in securing the money.

The governor said students in Alabama have just as much right to that money as children elsewhere.

Riley also addressed criticism of charter schools, saying they aren’t private schools or part of a voucher program. They have open enrollment and don’t divert funding away from other schools, Riley said.

He said the schools work, and they offer parents a choice.

“Charter schools work because they give parents another option,” said Riley. “…Charter school is just another tool in the toolbox we can use to educate kids.”

Riley also talked about economic initiatives. One proposal included giving tax credits to employers who hire workers on unemployment.

He also wants to raise the tax threshold — the income levels at which people start paying income tax.

Currently, a two-parent family of four starts paying income taxes at $12,600. Riley said he would like to raise that figure to $15,500.

Riley hopes to pass comprehensive ethics reforms during his final year as governor.

“If we don’t do something about ethics reform, we are going to continue to see headlines like you’ve seen the last two to three years,” said Riley, in reference to recent indictments and convictions of government officials.

The governor said the reforms should be applied across the board — from the governor’s office and legislature all the way down to local mayors, councils and commissions.

“This is something that will pay benefits to the state of Alabama for years and years to come,” said Riley. “We need to prevent abuses, not just convict people afterward.”

Specific legislation would require full disclosure of any gifts, meals, travel, tickets to sport events and other things of value given by lobbyists to public officials and their families.

It would also require public officials and their household to disclose to the Ethics Commission all jobs and consulting contact they have with any business, nonprofit or other entity that receives public funds.

The legislation would also give subpoena power to the Ethics Commission.

“I think Alabama could go from very weak ethics laws and accountability to one of the strongest in the nation,” Riley said.