by Greg Markley
For supporters of the constitutional amendment that was expected to bolster Medicaid, keep state prisons with sufficient staff rates, and battle a crippling proration that was on the horizon, the number 13 turned out to be lucky for once. At Tuesday’s special election, an estimated 13.5 percent of registered Lee County voters cast ballots, and backers of the amendment emerged with a nearly 2-1 victory.
The Sept. 18 vote will leave a large imprint on state funding. Voters from Auburn to Waverly and from Opelika to Smiths Station, and Beulah to Loachapoka, gave the go-ahead for officials to take $437 million from the Alabama Trust Fund. That money will close gaps in the General Fund budget for the next three years. The upcoming fiscal year’s budget is currently $145.8 million below the $1.67 billion budgeted for expenditure. Alabama must, by law, have a balanced budget before Oct. 1.
With 37 of the 38 Lee County precincts counted, representing 97 percent of the vote, the constitutional amendment was winning by 64 percent to 36 percent. A total of 7,919 voters throughout the county voted “Yes” while 4,511 others voted “No.” That brought the total vote to 12,430, with one precinct still to be counted.
“The 24 polling places in Lee County opened on time, experienced a steady stream of voters, closed on time, and reported vote totals in a timely manner,” said Butch Brock, election manager. Brock shepherded the election day process for the third time, with ease and without incident. “Despite the rainy weather, it was a good day at the polls,” he reflected.
Single-issue special elections most times have an attendance as low as the average score of recent opponents of the Alabama Crimson Tide. High-profile and emotionally charged special elections do exist, but they are rare. Two examples were the 1999 vote on a state lottery championed by Gov. Don Siegelman, which drew more than half of registered voters. That was trounced, as was the 2003 vote on Amendment One backed by Gov. Bob Riley, which was unpopular because it would have increased taxes.
“I thought it would be in single digits,” Brock said of Tuesday’s special election. “This was a very good turnout.”
Of the 92,000-plus registered voters in Lee County, approximately 12,000 showed up at the polls.
State Sen. Tom Whatley, Republican from District 27, noted that many legislators backed the proposed amendment to “buy time” until more effective cost-cutting is accomplished in Montgomery. He pronounced himself pleased that citizens realized the amendment’s value and promised that he would work to see that the upcoming transfer of funds was done well, and with concern for taxpayers’ money.
“One reason it has gotten so much support is because folks understand that we’re not leaving any stone unturned when it comes to maximizing every tax dollar that’s sent to Montgomery,” said Whatley, an Auburn attorney raised in Beauregard. “We’re already on track to save $1 billion from various efficiency measures the Legislature has implemented over the past two years.
“We’re fixing problems that took more than 100 years to create and government has grown to an unsustainable level. That’s why this bridge is necessary so that we don’t completely decimate essential services like volunteer fire departments, rural hospitals and care for the elderly,” the senator remarked.
Frank Dillman, a Notalsulga-based leader with the Patriots of Liberty, said he expected a closer vote because there are many Tea Party members and sympathizers in Lee County. But he said on visits to polling centers and seeing a larger-than expected turnout, he began to doubt that his anti-forces would triumph.
“The Governor had other options, such as a commission he created to address financial shortfalls for a more efficient government,” Dillman said. “As far as I know the recommendations have not been released or implemented as a unit or individually. As stated by Alabama Policy Institute and the Alabama Forest Owners’ Association, early retirement of state employees and converting to electronic deposits in lieu of paper pay checks would have gotten us out of this shortfall this year and years thereafter, including beyond this three-year ‘fix’.”