A conversation with the Governor
Kay Ivey talks about economic development, the Census and Alabama’s ‘first dog’
by Minnie Lamberth
Alabama’s 54th governor was inaugurated unexpectedly in April 2017, yet she is a familiar figure as a state leader. Gov. Kay Ivey was in her second term as lieutenant governor when she was promoted to the state’s top job at the resignation of former Gov. Robert Bentley. She had previously held the office of state treasurer for two four-year terms. Early in her career, Ivey had served as reading clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives under Speaker Joseph C. McCorquodale, and was also assistant director of the Alabama Development Office. She ran unsucessfully for state auditor in the 1980s. Ivey later served as director of government relations and communications for the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. Recently, Alabama Living sat down with Ivey in her office in the state capitol to discuss her current role.
Alabama Living: When you moved into the governor’s office, you talked about “steadying the ship of state.” Do you want to speak to some of the steps you have taken toward that end?
Ivey: Before I became governor, a dark cloud was over this state for quite a long time, and that dark cloud caused great un-certainty. Certainly it hindered progress in attracting new investments and creating employment opportunities. It hindered the process of just carrying out the routine business of the state. And it certainly hindered the focus that we should have had trying to find ways to provide opportunities for all Alabamians. So a dark cloud had been hanging over us. And I knew I had to get a handle on that and, quote, “steady the ship.” To me what we did to steady the ship was to be very methodical and deliberate as we evaluated each one of the cabinet positions. That took us some time because we want-ed to be very thorough, and deliberate, but that’s been done, and that’s a good thing. When I became governor, it was in the second half of the legislative session. But even so in that time I was able to support the Alabama Jobs Act. (Ivey signed legislation in May to extend the Alabama Jobs Act, which provides incentive packages for the state to lure businesses to Alabama.) We also supported ending the judicial override situation, so that whatever a jury decides is what prevails. Whether it’s the death penalty or life imprisonment, and that was a good thing. (Gov. Ivey signed a bill in April that ended a provision that was unique to Alabama that if a jury recommended life in prison, a judge could override the recommendation and impose the death penalty.) And then the autism bill, and the late Jim Patterson was the key person that kept that alive and moving it forward, and certainly we applaud Jim for his leadership on that. (The bill, sponsored by the late Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville, required certain health insurance plans to provide coverage for autism therapy.) So we’ve just had to work hard and use a lot of common sense to be sure that people felt better about the ship of state be-cause it was now going to be steadier, and we could start getting back on track.
Alabama Living: What are some signs that you are seeing that the ship is steadier?
Ivey: Some signs that it’s working can be seen with the investments that have been made in the state during the time I’ve been governor. We’ve had over $2 billion of investments. That’s the addition of some 5,000 new jobs and more on the way. We’ve had drops in the unemployment rate in each of the months I’ve been in office, and that’s a good sign. Since I’ve been governor, we’ve taken some actions to change the date of the next Senate race election. I simply followed the law, and the law said if there’s a vacancy in the Senate less than four months away from the next election, the governor shall call a special election forthwith. I appointed two Supreme Court justices – Lyn Stuart to be chief justice and Will Sellers to fill her vacancy. So we’ve been busy doing some things that needed to be done to give some direction and stability to the state.
Alabama Living: You’ve been involved in state government for many years, but the role of governor is surely unlike any other. Can you speak to an unexpected challenge or opportunity that you have faced?
Ivey: Well, every-thing was unexpected at the moment – because I wasn’t expect-ing things to play out like it did. Remember, most folks have three months to get ready for an administration; we had three hours. One of the opportunities certainly was that we had a vacancy in superintendent’s slot right after I got to be governor. We also had the ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, was due. It just was not complete. It was inconsistent. It had a lot of things in there that should not have been there in my view, and so I asked Secretary DeVos to grant us an extension, and she did, and I was proud to see that we were able to improve that plan substantially. We still have an opportunity to provide more amendments after the department reviews what has been sent. (ESSA was signed into law in December 2015 as a federal education law that re-places the No Child Left Behind Act. Ac-cording to the Alabama State Department of Education, the ESSA requires states to develop plans to close achievement gaps, increase equity of instruction and increase outcomes for all students.) We had the opportunity to issue an executive order that prevented the executive branch for naming lobbyists to boards and commissions – since lobbyists get paid for a particular viewpoint. Boards and com-missions are designed for citizen input. We disbanded a number of the Bentley task forces that had been created to study, study, study. We did keep the opioid crisis task force, but we have modified it and expanded the membership and included some folks that really need to be on that. That is a major crisis in this great state we’ve got to deal with.
Alabama Living: How has the transition been for you personally? How are you adjusting to being a public figure even when you’re at the grocery store, at church, at a shopping center, or other places where you used to go unobserved?
Ivey: Well, it’s for sure everywhere you go somebody’s going to see you and want to stop and talk, and that’s an OK thing. I just have to plan a little bit longer to go grocery shopping than I normally would. I have to plan a little bit longer to remain after church or whatever than I have be-fore. But that’s OK. I’m honored that folks recognize me and want to have a picture. Or they want to talk or share a concern. That’s a good thing. But yeah, you’re right. I’m meeting a lot of folks that I never would have previously. Now, my mug shot is out there, and people know me. It has certainly been an adjustment. I had to change houses.
Alabama Living: Did you move into the Governor’s Mansion?
Ivey: May 6 – me and Bear. Alabama’s got a first dog. (As the Auburn graduate explained why she would have a dog named, of all things, Bear, she told the story of how he had come to her as a hard-ship puppy. He had been injured by an automobile and was left at the same veterinarian Ivey used. After he had been treat-ed for his injuries, Ivey heard from the vet’s office.) They called me and said, “We think you’ve got a dog that you can’t live without.” They turned out to be right. After he’d been through all of that, I couldn’t change his name. So I just bought him an Auburn collar.
Alabama Living: Is the Governor’s Mansion comfortable for you and Bear?
Ivey: He’s learned to ride the elevator quite well. Mansion staff and orderlies are very fond of Bear, and he of them. They pay him a lot of attention. He has free run of the grounds and the mansion. So we’re both right at home. I still sit on the back porch at the mansion just like I sat on the back porch at my house.
Alabama Living: You’ve already alluded to some of the issues in state government. What are some of the issues that are of greatest concern to you and other state leaders? What are your concerns? What are the concerns that leaders are dealing with that are top of mind?
Ivey: Well, for me, one of the things that was missing before I took office was a strong working relationship between the executive office – the governor’s office – and the legislature. But I’m proud to say that we’ve made a big difference in that, and I’ve got a strong relationship with the leaders of the House and Senate and a lot of the members in both houses. Having a good working relationship so you can have open, transparent communications and under-standing with the legislative branch is important because the people of Alabama expect elected leaders to work together. Now we’re not always going to agree. But we can work together and find avenues and programs that we can work together on. That’s very definitely of advantage to the people of Alabama to get progress. Another concern that I have, and I’m trying to raise the issue across the state, is getting ready for the Census. The Census will occur in 2020, and while that seems like a long time away, it’s really not. Because now is the time to start getting prepared and be sure that all our people who, for example, have moved into new neighborhoods or new apartments or new condos or whatever that their addresses have been secured and sent to the Census coordinators in Alabama. ADECA is the state coordinator for the Census process, and already we have sent out letters to the mayors and county com-mission chairs advising them of the rules and the procedures they need to be under-taking now to get their roster current in Washington so Washington can send the form to everybody, and then it’s going to be key that everybody fills out a census. The reason it’s so important is, Census results determine how many Congress people you’re going to have. It also determines the federal funding you’ll get from the federal government for needed projects. And in Alabama now, while our population has been growing, it hasn’t been growing as fast as some of our sister states. So there’s a great chance that Alabama could lose a congressperson, and we certainly don’t need that. In addition, every town, every county and so much more depends on federal dollars coming in here. All of ADECA is funded with federal dollars. And if we have to lose a congress-person, it’s going to impact the amount of federal funding we get in this state. That is a serious, serious issue. So every Alabamian who is in this state needs to receive and complete a Census form. It will be sent in paper. So it’s not going to be something you can sit down and respond digitally to. It’s going to be imperative that people take the time to fill out the Census report. Future funding depends on it.
Alabama Living: Having grown up in Camden in Wilcox County, you’re a daughter of rural Alabama like many of the readers of Alabama Living. Can you speak to areas where state government is working to strengthen and support liv-ing and working in rural Alabama?
Ivey: You’re right, I’m definitely from LA, and that’s lower Alabama, and proud of it. In job creation, for example, some in-vestments and job creations are occurring even in our rural areas. For example, in Bibb County – Mercedes Benz has announced an expansion for Bibb. Dallas County is being strengthened by International Paper’s changing over their process to make a different product and putting in new equipment down in Selma. And so that’s a good stabilizing thing.Then there’s another firm in Jasper – Yorozu. The bottom line is as we continue to track investments, create more jobs, we want to take it to rural areas every time it’s possible. We also need to address broadband initiative throughout the state. (See related story on Page 18.) Along those lines, we did FirstNet – First Responders Network – that all first responders can have access just to that network whenever a crisis or need arises so they can have their own channel of communications, and so that’s a start in that direction. First Responders Network, I think, is some 30 towers that will be built. The U.S. Department of Commerce put out an RFP throughout the nation, and AT&T won that RFP to be the provider. Alabama will be the 24th state to opt in. AT&T then has the responsibility to build the towers, maintain and operate for the next 25 years. That’s separate from broadband, but it’s another good thing especially for rural Alabama, as well as everybody else that are first responders. Folks in rural areas are good folks and they’re hardworking. We need to do everything we can to help them have access to better opportunities.