MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley’s State of the State address tonight will discuss ways to fix a major problem in Alabama, poverty.

“One thing that holds our state back — and we have to not only recognize this, we have to own this because it is ours — that’s the fact that we’re the sixth-poorest state in the country,” Bentley said this week. “Our poverty holds us back educationally, holds us back economically. We are undereducated, undertrained and really too dependent on governmental programs.”

Bentley’s speech hits on several areas, including expanding the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program with a $20 million funding increase, expanding broadband Internet infrastructure and getting more health care providers in rural areas.

He also has a proposal to address the number of students entering higher education, which he says is declining.

He wants a program that would work with low-income students beginning in the seventh grade. It’d be modeled after a current program at the University of Alabama Birmingham.

“Through Alabama’s community college system, those students will receive tutoring, summer-help programs, visits to college campuses and financial planning to make sure they not only want to go to college, but that they can and will succeed,” according to a embargoed portion of Bentley’s speech. “By the time they graduate high school, after they’ve met strict criteria, kept their grades up, and tapped into all available financial aid, we will pay their two-year college tuition.”

According to the speech, scholarships will be funded with money saved through streamlining measures in the community college system.

About broadband access, Bentley said one million Alabamians don’t have access to high-speed Internet. He wants to capture federal dollars to expand infrastructure in the state, something private providers haven’t done because of cost. He compared it to putting in the water and sewer lines before a private developer builds a subdivision.

Private providers will then be able to provide access and offer it at a more affordable and manageable cost to communities, according to the speech.

“I think this is essential if we’re going to make industry come to Alabama in the rural areas, you can’t do that without high-speed Internet,” Bentley said.

Bentley, a retired physician, has a multi-prong approach to get more doctors in rural Alabama. They include expanding scholarships for primary care providers and dentists who will locate in rural areas, a $5,000 tax credit for rural providers and establishing 12 new residency programs around the state.

“Primary care doctors are critical to improving the health and well-being of the chronically sick, and the chronically poor,” Bentley says in the speech.

According to the Alabama Office of Primary Care and Rural Health, Morgan, Limestone, Lawrence, Lauderdale, Colbert and Franklin counties all have primary care access shortages. Only 11 counties or portions of counties statewide do not have access issues. One of them is Madison County.

Bentley’s speech begins at 6:30 p.m. It will be aired live on Alabama Public Television as well as on the governor’s website, www.governor.alabama.gov.

Mary Sell covers state government for The TimesDaily. She can be reached at msell@TimesDaily.com. Follow on Twitter @DD_MarySell.

Source: Times Daily