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Governor: Black Belt is a priority

In his State of the State address, Gov. Bob Riley said things are looking up for Alabama. And though it wasn’t mentioned in that address, Riley said he has not forgotten the Black Belt area.

The governor, who pulled together leaders from across the region to form the Black Belt Commission, did not once refer to his brainchild either in the State of the State address or his special report that was circulated in metro newspapers throughout the state, yet he maintains the commission and this area are a priority in Montgomery.

“It was a priority there when we set this up and it is still a priority,” he said.

Yet as Riley heralded the new year and the great things that are happening in Alabama, he failed to mention the increased unemployment rate in the Black Belt region or the failing schools.

“Tonight it’s my privilege to report the State of our State is better today than it was two years ago,” he said in his address. “It is better today than it was last year. And if we have the courage to make the right – but tough – choices during this legislative session, I promise you: the State of our State next year will be even better, even stronger and even more promising than ever before.”

Riley applauded steps taken in previous years – steps that have given the education fund a surplus and lowered the state unemployment rate to the lowest its been in three years.

Residents in the Black Belt have not felt those changes, but Riley disagreed and was adamant they would see more changes in the future.

“We’ve had pretty good success over there, we’ve had people look there (for business),” he said. “When businesses call wanting to look at Alabama for possible location, we make sure they have the opportunity to look at sites in that area.”

Also a priority, he said, is industrial development, something he is working on with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

“We met with Gov. Barbour in Meridian about six weeks ago, we have some potential work over there,” Riley said. He explained that he and staff members met with potential clients, but said nothing firm had taken shape yet.

“Are we ready to announce anything yet, no, but there is a lot going on over there,” he said.

In his address and afterward, Riley has celebrated advances the state has made, both in education and the economy.

“We have the opportunity to do things we couldn’t even consider years ago,” he said. “We have a record amount of money in K-12 and are able to fully fund requests in education.”

An echo of what he said in his address the night before.

“My budget plan will fully fund all the requests made by our K through 12 system,” he said in his address Tuesday night. “It will fully fund all the requests made by the Commission on Higher Education. And every dime of our education dollars will only go to education activities. That means textbooks are getting a 17 percent increase and are fully funded. The Alabama Reading Initiative is fully funded. The Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative is fully funded. Professional development for our teachers – fully funded. Ladies and Gentlemen: there can be no greater investment in Alabama’s future than an investment in education.”

What does that mean for Black Belt schools?

Riley noted his latest innovation, ACCESS – Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide.

“ACCESS is a distance learning program that uses technology to connect teachers and students across the state, and potentially anywhere in the world,” he explained. “The technology exists today and we should put it to work in our Alabama classrooms.”

Riley said this new program will allow students, particularly those in rural classrooms, to take classes not available at their own school.

“Especially in rural areas, students will be able to take advanced placement courses, foreign languages, advanced math, things they would never have access to otherwise,” he said.

To accomplish the tough goals he has set, Riley said it would take a bipartisan effort, something he said is likely.

“If you look at the Democratic proposed agenda, and the Republican’s proposed agenda, they’re very similar,” he said. “The vast majority of items are the same, so we should be able to pass these things. But it’s going to take every one of us working together to get it done.”

Riley said he had encouraged the legislators to forget politics for the time being and work together.

“I told them to forget about the 06 election, and for the next few weeks and next few months come across the aisle and work together,” he said. “We need to quit playing politics down here and work for the betterment of Alabama.”