Gov. Robert Bentley laid out his priorities for the upcoming legislative session during the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Lunch today.

Bentley spoke to the group of local business leaders and members of the Mobile, Baldwin and Washington county legislative delegations on a number of topics, but started with a need to work on the General Fund budget.

Bentley admitted a $700 million deficit existed and said a reworking could help pay back the Education Trust Fund. Reworking of the budget could also mean paying back about $63 million meant for new roads and bridges that had previously been diverted to the Department of Public Safety and the state court system.

He promised “bold action” during the legislative session, including plans to raise certain taxes. When asked about the increases, he said his administration would examine “tax deductions” and “unevenly paid” taxes.

Additionally, Bentley said prison reform will be among his top priorities this year. He plans to task a commission with looking into a diversion program for those convicted of nonviolent crimes, among other changes.

“We have to put some money into prisons,” he said.

Bentley said he will replace Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas with a retired Air Force colonel.

“We need some new, fresh eyes on the prison system,” he said. “We need to bring someone in who hasn’t grown up in the system. It has been going on a long time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.”

Bentley, who just won re-election, said it’s important to look at homeowners insurance reform.

“That is a real problem for Realtors, homeowners and the working people in this state,” he said.

He also promised the crowd that a controversial convention center and lodge in Gulf State Park would be completed by the time he left office. Bentley said the ability to hold conventions at the beach destination could bring in “hundreds of millions of dollars.” The $85 million project is being paid for by early restoration funds from the BP oil spill that other states have used for environmental remediation.

The governor did not bring up the issue of same-sex marriage until he was asked about it, during a brief meeting afterward with reporters. Regarding Attorney General Luther Strange’s motion for a longer stay of a ruling by a federal judge that essentially legalizes same-sex marriage in the state, Bentley said he has a “duty to uphold the state and U.S. Constitutions.”

“We believe the people (of Alabama) spoke in 2006,” Bentley said, referring to an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage was defined as between a man and a woman.
He said there would be a lot of “confusion” if the ruling wasn’t delayed longer than Feb. 9, but he said the state had no contingencies if the stay was not extended.