By Phillip Rawls/The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — 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.
Republican Gov. Robert 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.