6 AL governor candidates discuss state issues at forum in Birmingham

6 AL governor candidates discuss state issues at forum in Birmingham
The Alabama Capitol building. (Source: Josh Gauntt/WBRC)

Most of the candidates running for Alabama's highest office gathered in downtown Birmingham to discuss key issues facing the state.

Huntsville's Mayor Tommy Battle, Judge Sue Bell Cobb, Scott Dawson, James Fields, AL. Sen. Bill Hightower and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox answered six questions at a forum hosted by Raycom Media, WBRC FOX6 News, Birmingham Business Journal and WBHM 90.3 Thursday morning at the Harbert Center.

WBRC anchor Jonathan Hardison helped moderate the discussion.

The candidates were chosen based on the highest fundraising totals according to campaign finance data.

Gov. Kay Ivey declined an invitation to the forum, citing scheduling conflicts.

Each candidate answered questions about how their administration would improve education, fix infrastructure problems, implement incentives and bring business to the state and tackle the statewide opioid crisis

Below is a synopsis of their responses:

Topic #1: Improving education in the state

Battle: "Education is the key to any economic development." Students should have access to technical education in order to bring manufacturing industry to the state.

Cobb: A state lottery would fill the gap between Pell Grant and college tuition. A lottery is how to pay for improving education, and would fully fund K-4 programs. The governor should hold legislature accountable. The public wants a chance to vote on the lottery.

Dawson: The status of teachers should be elevated and mentors such as retirees should be placed in classrooms with proper background checks.

Fields: Investing in communities is the key to improving education. There's too much focus on a lottery and if it will pass.

Hightower: It's time to stop assuming that every student will go to a four-year college or university. Corporations, junior colleges and high schools should work together to improve education and job opportunities by bringing certification programs into high schools.

Maddox: Efficiency is key to improving education. Getting rid of "suffocating bureaucracy " would improve the education system immediately.

Topic #2: Infrastructure 

Cobb: Twenty percent of the state's bridges are obsolete. A "modest" gas tax would improve infrastructure and give money to projects such as making I-65 a three-lane highway to at least Clanton.

Dawson, Fields and Hightower oppose a gas tax, with Dawson saying that upwards of 90 percent of ALDOT's budget being earmarked. All, including Maddox, stress the importance of transparency. "I refuse to continue to tax the poor in this state," Fields said.

Topic #3: Renewable energy sources

Dawson: Counties such as Walker Co. are hurting and many are losing their livelihoods as coal jobs disappear. Hightower and Fields also support the coal industry.

Maddox: The state needs water management and energy plan.

Battle: Huntsville started working with renewable energy in 1988. His administration would bring the city's plan statewide.

Cobb: The green committee she established as a judge would also be a statewide plan under her administration.

Topic #4: Experience

Fields: His background as a state representative and as a pastor have prepared him to lead the state.

Hightower: He highlighted his voting record, and wants to bring "pragmatic business ideas" and a history of bringing business to the state to the governor's office.

Maddox: His experience as mayor of Tuscaloosa during both the recession and the April  27, 2011 tornado show that he is able to lead in a crisis. Even though he's a Democrat, he says voters care more about values than political affiliations.

Battle: The state of Alabama should be a top 10 state like Huntsville ranks in the top 10 cities in the nation. He would employ the same strategy to get the state there.

Cobb: Doug Jones winning last year's special election is evidence that a Democrat can win in Alabama. Initiating a bipartisan effort is important. Her experience as a judge helps because judges are the gatekeepers to the state's most expensive services.

Dawson: Finding things that both sides of the aisle can agree on is important.

Topic #5: Business incentives 

All candidates agree that incentives are important to bringing businesses to Alabama. All want to see a return on investments for the state.

Topic #6: Handling the opioid crisis and the prison system

All candidates agree that addiction to opioids is a statewide issue that more must be done besides sending people to jail. Battle would like to see job training for inmates to reduce recidivism. "Drug addiction is holding this generation hostage," Dawson said. He supports mandatory drug testing for high school students participating in extracurricular activities.

Hightower says his administration would issue a state of emergency. Both he and Maddox want to monitor doctors who prescribe opioids.  Maddox said cities bear the brunt of addiction. He would make drug programs report directly to the governor's office. He also disagrees with Gov. Ivey's plan to invest more money into the prison system.

Question from social media: Should cities and municipalities have the authority to raise the minimum wage?

Cobb supports cities having the authority to increase the minimum wage. "It's cruel to expect someone to support their family on $7.25 an hour," she said. Fields also supports raising wages, saying that businesses and labor sectors should come together to find a solution. Maddox supports a statewide increase to avoid municipalities competing with each other.

Battle opposes raising the minimum wage, saying that he was seen increases put workers out of jobs. Raising it doesn't need to be a knee-jerk reaction.Hightower agrees that raising the minimum wage could keep low-income workers out of jobs.

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