Alabama voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin Tuesday to avoid dramatic cuts in state government by withdrawing $437 million from a state trust fund to help balance the General Fund budget for the next three years.
Senator Paul Bussman (R-Cullman), who opposed the measure, said late Tuesday he didn’t expect any political fallout over the in-party split that set his own view against that of Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, who urged the ‘yes’ vote.
Instead, he said, legislators must act in accord to fix the state’s budgeting problems now, in order to show Alabama voters their elected representatives won’t abuse the public’s trust.
“I’ve not seen any retaliation over this, and I don’t expect to see any,” Bussman said. “What I would like to see is for to us to come back together and recognize that the problem is still not fixed. This vote did not fix the problem; it just extended it. So it would behoove us, as legislators, to fix that problem as quickly as we can — so that, in three years from now, the people will not look back at this and say, ‘Boy, our legislature didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that we gave them.”
House Rep. Jeremy Oden supported Amendment One and described Tuesday’s outcome as just such an opportunity.
“I have said that this will create an option for us to use in the legislature, and I think that’s what this has done,” Oden said Tuesday evening. “We have to be good stewards, and part of that is looking at the General Fund and seeing what areas still need to be cut; to see exactly what is working and what is not. We can’t take cuts off the table; we have to approach the budget in such a way that the General Fund is solid and we don’t get into this situation again. People expect that of us.”
One way to earn that kind of trust is for the legislature to view Tuesday’s approval of the bailout with an accountant’s sharp eye, rather than treating it as a carte blanche permission slip to spend all the money voters authorized.
“I hope, even with the ‘yes’ vote, that we don’t have to use all the money,” Oden said. “I supported the amendment, but with that comes the understanding that we have to manage it. So whether we go and spend it all is now the question. It’s an option that we do have on the table.”
Bussman said he intends to move quickly to begin a public conversation about how the legislature can make systemic changes to avoid future budget crises, and he hopes his peers in the House and Senate will show voters they’re serious about fixing the General Fund once the 2013 session convenes.
“The way I look at it right now is, we are four to five months away from the session, and now is the time when we start doing our homework. Now is the time when we start looking for savings, so that when we get to the session, we should be able to handle it. And the first piece of legislation that should come out of this session needs to be the repay; to mandate that we repay this money. The governor said he’s going to do it, and it will give the legislature a chance to honor their commitment in what they told the people before they made a vote like they did tonight.
“And I fully intend, within the next month and a half, to have a town hall meeting with the physicians and hospital staff, locally, to find out what we can do with Medicaid. There was tremendous concern from the medical profession about the effects this would have on Medicaid, and there were several good suggestions made by physicians here in town to improve the system. They understand the system they work under, and where savings can be made without compromising patient care, and I fully intend to engage them.”
Gov. Bentley thanked voters for “this temporary funding bridge from the Alabama Trust Fund to maintain essential services as we continue to streamline and right-size government.”
Elois Zeanah, president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Woman, said proponents used scare tactics about massive cuts in health care and the release of thousands of prisoners to raid the trust fund. “Scare tactics won out, and transparency and good government lost,” she said.
Election officials reported about one-fifth of Alabama’s 2.68 million voters participated in the one-issue special election.
The Legislature left it up to voters to decide whether to withdraw the money from the Alabama Trust Fund or require deep cuts of 12 percent or more from the $1.7 billion General Fund budget that takes effect Oct. 1. The proposed constitutional amendment would take the money from a trust fund set up 30 years ago to receive the state’s royalties from natural gas wells drilled off the Alabama coast.
With 85 percent of the precincts reporting, the constitutional amendment had 336,082 favorable votes, or 65 percent, and 179,531 negative votes, or 35 percent.
The vote split Democrats and Republicans alike.
Democratic Sen. Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile said, “We avoided across-the-board cuts that would have been devastating, especially to our seniors, children and the mentally impaired.’
An opponent, Democratic House Leader Craig Ford of Gadsden, said the constitutional amendment postponed financial disaster for three years until after the 2014 legislative elections, but Alabama has no long-term solution.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the vote showed “the people trust us to be good stewards of taxpayer resources” and they wanted to “us to avoid a crash landing while we continue to work to implement cost-cutting measures.”
State Health Officer Don Williamson, who oversees the state Medicaid program, said it will still have to make $20 million to $40 million in cuts to live within the new year’s budget, but that will be much less painful than the massive cuts that were forecast.
Concerns about potentially massive health care cuts, including the closing of some hospitals and nursing homes, prompted 32-year-old emergency room technician Amanda Reed to vote for the ballot measure.
“As medical professionals we are our patients’ advocates. This is a good way to show we are their advocates,” the Montgomery resident said.
Barbara Gore, a 62-year-old former real estate agent from Alabaster, said she voted no because state officials should do a better job of eliminating waste before dipping into savings. She cited the special election as an example of waste.
“It cost them $3 million just to do this,” she said.
Julian Elmore, a 64-year-old retired state employee from Montgomery, voted no because the constitutional amendment wouldn’t require the repayment of the money and he was skeptical about promises by some state officials to repay it over a decade.
“I’ve been around these guys long enough not to trust them to do something down the road to pay it back,” he said.
Erica Reed, a 33-year-old preschool teacher at an Air Force base in Montgomery, carried her 5-week-old daughter to the polls to cast a yes vote.
Reed said she was concerned about predictions of massive cuts in state social services, including medical care, and layoffs among state workers and private-sector employees who provide those services. “It’s hard enough to find a job nowadays anyway, and this would cause hundreds of people to lose their jobs,” she said.
* Phillip Rawls compiled and wrote reactions from across the state for the Associated Press contributed to this story.