There was a relaxed atmosphere in the Governor’s office as I walked in Friday morning. Former Bentley Chief of Staff and current Supreme Court Chief Justice Chuck Malone once told me that working in the Governor’s office was “like drinking water from a fire hose.” The atmosphere around the State House and Capitol is typically intense, but Fridays sometimes offer a slower pace.
Entering the Governor’s office begins with a stop at a security desk just down the hall from the prominently displayed bust of former Governor Lurleen B. Wallace. The security guard presses a button to unlock a set of double doors behind him. Once through the doors, a second security detail is stationed in the hallway just outside the Governor’s suite. Governor Bentley came out to meet me in the first room of the suite. We walked through his executive assistant’s office into the Governor’s office and sat down at the conference table to talk along with several members of his staff.
While some politicians are unsatisfied when the attention in a conversation shifts away from them, Bentley seemed more excited to riff on his time spent with Rev. Billy Graham in the North Carolina mountains than he was to discuss his personal agenda. He spoke with genuine awe of the fact that he had been granted an audience with the man who many Christian historians believe has shared the gospel with more people than anyone in history.
But there was plenty more to talk about so we jumped right in, starting with the presidential election.
“Romney will win in a close race,” the Governor said. “He just needs to keep talking about creating jobs and strengthening the economy.” Bentley believes strongly that had capital gains taxes been cut down to zero percent for two years, the U.S. economy would now be in much better shape. “Get money moving and things do well,” he concluded. “I think Romney knows how to do that.” Bentley acknowledged that Romney’s Mormon faith may have hurt him in the largely Protestant South during the primaries. However, he doesn’t think it will play a role in the general election as Romney takes on President Obama.
The Governor then shared some interesting thoughts on who Romney should chose to be his VP. He offered high praise for first-term Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin who he believes “would be a great choice.” Perhaps more expectedly, he hailed Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as “brilliant” and hoped he would receive serious consideration from the Romney campaign. “Scott Walker is another one,” Bentley said. “He’s great.”
Bentley was quick to point out that Governors make the best presidents, mainly due to their executive experience which Bentley views as much different from that of a legislator. But he was not convinced that all of his current colleagues would be a perfect fit on the Romney ticket. “You probably noticed I didn’t mention Governor Christie. I think he would be outstanding, but some of these other guys would be a little bit better.”
Regardless of who ends up on the ticket with Romney, Bentley was adamant that defeating President Obama should be priority number one in November. When I asked him what concerned him most about the possibility of a second Obama term, the overreach of the federal government and the prospect of its continued expansion had clearly been on his mind — especially with regard to healthcare.
“The Affordable Healthcare Act is probably the worst piece of federal legislation that’s ever been passed,” Bentley snapped. And as we drilled-down on the issue, the former doctor laid out his thoughts on the future of healthcare in Alabama.
“Unfortunately, even if [the Affordable Care Act] is declared unconstitutional — which I hope it is — that does not mean we have a great way to pay for healthcare. I want to create a marketplace that would encourage free-market competition. I want people to have more choices. I want more high-deductible insurance coverage and I’m a big believer in health savings accounts.”
In an effort to do this, Bentley has long-advocated for the creation of a free-market healthcare exchange. The “exchange” would be a website where Alabamians could go to choose which insurance providers and plans suit them best. Whether or not Bentley’s vision for an exchange will be possible hinges largely on the Supreme Court’s impending decision on The Affordable Care Act. “We want to position ourselves to be ready for whatever takes place. Whatever we do, it’s going to be an Alabama-based exchange.” The court is set to rule on the Affordable Healthcare Act sometime this month, possibly as soon as this coming Monday.
Bentley was quite open about his healthcare goals, but he was a little more guarded about other parts of his agenda moving forward. “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. But he believes strongly that the states, not the federal government, are the places where problem-solving should start. “States are laboratories for change. That’s why I like the NGA (National Governors Association) — because I get to talk to other Governors and find out what’s working and what’s not working in their states.”
The first couple of years of the Bentley administration have been largely defined by his response to the devastating weather that hit Alabama exactly 100 days into his term. He received high marks from people around the state for his sincere, caring and competent response in the wake of the storms. Looking forward, many believe the next two years of Bentley’s tenure may be defined by his ability to push through the kind of conservative reforms that have defined the terms of some of his aforementioned colleagues, particularly Governor Jindal in Louisiana.
“I feel like there is a lot of work left to be done. I would like to make more progress on Alabama’s budgeting process and I want to help get us through these tough times,” he said. I asked if that meant he would be gearing up for a reelection bid soon. Although he declined to officially announce his intentions, he may have offered a hint as to what we can expect. “I don’t know if we can get everything done in a 4-year period,” he said. “But as always, it will be up to the people.”