Part 1: Constitutional Amendment seen as stop-gap, but necessary

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by Greg Markley

Political Writer

 

When little-known Georgia governor Jimmy Carter told his mother Miz Lillian in 1975 that he had decided to run for president, she said “President of what?” According to opinion polls, a similar surprise comes to many Alabamians when told “Don’t forget to vote Sept. 18”: They say: “For what”?

As the Nov. 6 high-profile U. S. presidential election approaches, Alabama has a special election six weeks earlier dealing with constitutional changes that will impact everyone from taxpayers to Medicaid recipients to state prisoners to schoolchildren. Voters will decide whether to use the Alabama Trust Fund to balance the state’s General Fund which is underfunded due to a lack of adequate revenues to pay for its expenses. This week, the Observer provides background on the Sept. 18 election; next week, we discuss the issue with local officials.

Created in 1985, the ATF is a “savings account” in which offshore drilling rights and royalties from oil and gas production pay for certain state expenses. In 2008, voters approved a Rainy Day Account as part of ATF which was designed to work like a line of credit. This was expected to help in cases where proration was in place or likely. The state’s General Fund Budget finances state operations such as Medicaid, which is primarily paid for by the states; state prisons, and the various arms of Alabama government.

On Sept. 18, voters will decide whether to approve a Constitutional Amendment to take $437 million from the Alabama Trust Fund. The idea: to shore up the General Fund budget for this fiscal year which is $145.8 million short of the $1.67 billion budgeted. Gov. Robert Bentley reminds people that the state must balance its budget before Oct. 1. Spending must be cut significantly or money must come from somewhere to cover the bills. Cuts to Medicaid would hurt 90,000 lower-income/disabled recipients and nursing home residents.

“ It’s the State’s responsibility to pass a balanced budget on realistic revenue projections — not to continually siphon savings accounts to balance the budget until Rainy Day funds are depleted, then to raid the principal,” said Elois Zeanah, president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women. “Taking one-fifth of the principal of the state’s $2.4 billion investment savings account without paying it back is irresponsible, and sets a bad precedent. A permanent fix is needed, not another bailout for a broken system for another three years. It’s now or later.”

Dr. Henry C. Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, agrees that whether the Sept. 18 Constitutional Amendment passes or not, it will have limited value over long-term. Still, he thinks that if citizens and corporations contribute more to such critical needs as health care, Alabama would be a much healthier, safer, and more decent place.

“There are 4.8 million people in Alabama and a million of them receive health care benefits,” he reflected recently in the Alabama School Journal. “Each of us contributes the equivalent of a Hardee’s Thickburger Combo per month so another less fortunate gets heart surgery or dialysis. Each of us pays 50 cents a day to keep prisoners out of our back yards. Is this service worth a can of Coca-Cola every day? Is it worth a piece of Super Bubble to make sure dead beat dads pay child support? Is it worth just more than a penny per day for Public Health to make sure all restaurants are safe?”

 

Next week: Local officials give their input.

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