— From staff, wire reports
Though a huge crowd isn’t expected at the polls for Tuesday’s statewide referendum, it’s anybody’s guess if voters will approve a measure designed to prop up the struggling General Fund.
The polls will open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Limestone County voters will cast their ballots where they voted in the previous governor’s election.
The special election has only one issue on the ballot: Whether to approve a constitutional amendment that will take $145.8 million a year for three years from the Alabama Trust Fund. The fund was set up 30 years ago to preserve the state’s royalties from natural gas wells drilled in state-owned waters along the Alabama coast.
The Legislature set the date less than two weeks before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 so Gov. Robert Bentley would have time to call a special session in case voters decline the measure.
Proponents say it will prevent big cutbacks in state services, while opponents say state officials are trying to delay tough spending decisions until after their next election in 2014.
The turnout is expected to be particularly light, according to state officials. Secretary of State Beth Chapman expects only about one-fifth of voters to turn out, based on a lack of advertising and the unusual date.
Thursday was the last day to vote absentee for the special election in Limestone County. Circuit Court Clerk Charles Page Jr. said only 67 residents voted absentee. However, he’s received about 200 absentee applications for the Nov. 6 general election.
The expected light turnout is partially what makes the outcome of the Tuesday vote hard to narrow down. State Rep. Dan Williams said a light turnout could mean it will pass.
“Most people I’ve talked to have indicated they’re not going to vote for it,” he said. “A lot of them think the Legislature should have done more to get the budget in shape than to have this referendum. I don’t see a lot of support for it even among legislators.”
Like most political issues, the divides over the referendum issues are deep. Proponents, like Bentley, are aiming their pitch toward those who could be affected the most.
Speaking in Montgomery earlier this month to a group that included state employees, he said he won’t approve new taxes if the constitutional amendment fails, and he could be forced to cut spending by non-education agencies, such as prisons, Medicaid and state troopers, by 17 percent.
“Those of you who work for state government, your job may depend on it,” he told the audience.
Bentley’s counting on groups that will be affected, such as the Alabama State Employees Association, hospitals and nursing homes, to take the lead in turning out yes votes by talking to their members.
Groups have responded by featuring the vote on publications that go to their members, by distributing literature, and by making contributions.
A group formed to promote the vote, Keep Alabama Working, has raised about $600,000. More than half of that has come from the Alabama Nursing Home Association, whose members count on Medicaid patients to fill two-thirds of their beds.
On Thursday, about 50 people gathered on the steps of the Alabama Capitol to urge state residents to vote no on the measure.
Holding signs urging voters to not “bust” the trust fund, the demonstrators listened to representatives of grassroots groups who said the principle from the fund, established by former Gov. Fob James, was never meant to be spent.
That’s one of two reasons why Williams said Alabamians are not fully behind the measure.
“A trust fund is not supposed to be borrowed from,” he said. “The state uses the interest from that fund to pay for other programs.”
The other flaw with the referendum is the lack of a plan to pay back the money. He’s also concerned about how the state could afford to pay back the Trust Fund if the General Fund continues to be in dire straits.
“If it does pass, it gives the Legislature three years (to pay back the Trust Fund), but I’d like to use one year and get the budget fixed, which is the bottom line,” he said. “The General Fund has got to be fixed. It needs more revenue, or services have to be cut.”
One thing Williams is fairly certain about is that the Legislature won’t be raising taxes. He said it’s not so much a political decision to stay in office, but simply because Alabamians can’t afford it.
Marcia Chambliss, state director of Smart Girl Politics Alabama, said balancing the state’s General Fund budget by “raiding” the trust fund will not solve the state’s financial problems.
But a leader of one tea party group said transferring the money is a good way to balance the budget.
Danny B. Joyner, founder of the tea party group Alabama Patriots, said he and the majority of his group’s 251 members support the referendum. He said he and other members of the group met with the governor recently and were persuaded by his arguments about the referendum, particularly about the impact on Alabama health care if the issue fails.
“With these kids and older people, we’ve got no lifeline to offer them,” he said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.