— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley began the election-year session of the Alabama Legislature by defending his decision not to expand the state Medicaid program and by presenting better education and more jobs as the best strategy for escaping poverty.
In his State of the State speech Tuesday night, the Republican governor acknowledged that Alabama is one of the poorest states in America, with one in four children living in poverty.
"We can break the cycle of poverty, but not with programs that drag our communities and our people into the downward spiral of dependence," he said.
Bentley is a physician, but like other Republican governors in the South, he chose not to expand Alabama's Medicaid program under the federal health care law.
The Democratic minority in the Legislature has made expansion its chief priority as both the governor and many legislators seek re-election this year. Democrats say an expansion would bring health care to 300,000 Alabamians and create 30,000 jobs.
The governor recounted the 40,000 new jobs that have been announced since he took office in 2011, ranging from the giant Airbus aircraft assembly plant in Mobile to the Golden Dragon copper tubing plant in rural Wilcox County. He said that is the way to reduce poverty and make sure people have health care.
Two Republican leaders, House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston, praised Bentley's stand on using economic growth rather than Medicaid to help people.
"Our job is to get people off Medicaid, not on Medicaid," Hubbard said.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Bentley's speech was short on ideas to help Alabamians and long on Washington criticism. "He sounded like he was running for federal office. We need him to start worrying about Alabama, not Washington," Ford said.