Riley Announces First Cabinet Pick

TUSCALOOSA — Despite three days of gloomy financial news, Gov.-elect Bob Riley was upbeat when he spoke to lawmakers Wednesday.

He named his first Cabinet appointee and asked lawmakers to help him make sure the state competes in education and other areas the way it does in college football.

“There is not another Southern state that’s as poised to take advantage of what’s coming in the next generation as well as Alabama,” Riley said.

Riley named Toby Roth, 34, of Montgomery as his chief of staff. Roth managed Riley’s campaign. Before that, he worked for the Business Council of Alabama and was director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pro-business advocacy group.

Riley didn’t say when he would name more Cabinet members

But when asked, Roth said the administration would include women and minorities in prominent positions.

“That is certainly a top consideration in putting the Cabinet together,” Roth said.

Roth said some Siegelman Cabinet members would be considered for the Riley administration. Department of Human Resources Commissioner Bill Fuller and Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley, Siegelman appointees, both have said they would like to keep their jobs.

Riley’s message capped a three-day orientation for the new Legislature that was dominated by reports of serious budget shortfalls.

Some legislators said they were encouraged by Riley’s positive speech, but want more specifics on how he’ll deal with budget problems, which some have said are the worst they’ve been in a couple of decades.

“I think he made some good statements about wanting to see the state come from the bottom in education,” said Sen. Sundra Escott, D-Birmingham. “I think what we’ve got to do is figure out how he is going to go about doing that.”

Riley takes office Jan. 20. Alabama’s third Republican governor since Reconstruction will submit his proposals to a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Riley said they have a “window of opportunity” to change the state.

“Very few times in your life have you been able to make the kind of fundamental, systemic changes you can today,” Riley said.

Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, expected to be president pro tem of the Senate for a second four-year term, pledged to cooperate with Riley.

“Gov. Siegelman had at least a two-year honeymoon period,” Barron said. “He got most everything he wanted. Riley’s got a great window. It could be a year, two years. Hopefully, he could stretch it into four years.”

The Legislature meets in organizational session Jan. 14 and begins its regular session in March. Democrats hold a 25-10 majority in the Senate and a 64-41 majority in the House.

Rep. Johnny Ford, D-Tuskegee, liked Riley’s positive messages.

“I think Riley is going to give us some new hope and new vision for this state,” Ford said. Ford, a former Tuskegee mayor, said he quietly supported Riley during the campaign because of his experience dealing with Riley when Riley represented Macon County in Congress.

“Though our county never supported him, he did perhaps more to help Macon County than any other congressman,” Ford said.

Riley offered few specifics in his speech. He did repeat a campaign proposal that the state should set up a commission to plan highway construction, rather than allow the governor and his appointed director of the Department of Transportation to make road-building decisions.

That proposal has been around for years, but has never passed the Legislature. Riley said it would improve efficiency at DOT by taking some of the politics out of the agency.

“For too long, we have used that department to buy influence,” Riley said. Rep. Frank McDaniel, D-Albertville, said Riley might be able to get that passed.

“I think there’s more open-mindedness there than a lot of people may realize,” McDaniel said.