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Amendment vote set for Sept. 18

Published 6:02am Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Residents know they’ll be heading back to the polls soon for the important national and county elections taking place in November, but some may not realize they will also be asked to head to the polls next week as well.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Alabama voters are being asked to cast their ballots in favor or against a constitutional amendment that will allow $437.4 million to be moved from the Alabama Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund over a three-year period.

The money in the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) comes from the collection of oil and gas royalties from energy exploration in state waters.

The reported purpose of the transferring of funds is to cover costs associated with running many state agencies- something that is supported through the General Fund.

Many of these state agencies are depending on the money to keep functioning amid other stringent budget cuts that have occurred since 2008.

Several prominent groups – including the Alabama District Attorneys Association, the Alabama Education Association, the Business Council of Alabama and the Alabama Hospital Association, among others – were officially named as supporters of the amendment on Friday.

Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said the effects of the amendment failing to pass would be far-reaching in terms of prosecuting criminals and keeping them behind bars.

“The members of the Alabama house and Senate passed the general fund budget based on this bill actually passing, so if it fails to pass, they’ll have to call a special session to lower the amounts that state agencies were already projected to receive.”

Rushing said this would be devastating to many offices, including his own, that have already been cut down to the bare minimum.

“Over the last four years, the DA’s budget has been cut 36 percent,” Rushing said. “As a direct result, we lost two full-time employees and a grant employee because we couldn’t come up with funds to match the grant we received for that person’s salary.

“We were able to re-hire one person back but only as a part-time employee, so this means we’re having to operate our office with less people and less resources.

“We try to do the best we can but sometimes it becomes difficult to provide the same level of service with a smaller staff and fewer resources.”

Franklin County Circuit Clerk Anita Scott knows exactly where Rushing is coming from.

Scott’s office staff has dwindled from eight employees to the current five employees.

“The girls in my office are having to do multiple jobs and take on extra tasks to make up for the employees we’ve lost due to budget cuts,” Scott said. “Further cuts as a result of the non-passage of this amendment could really be devastating to the court system that is already struggling as it is.”

Rushing said the affect on the prosecution of criminals could also be devastating.

“Losing even more funding that we already have could mean victims having to wait even longer for their cases to go to trial because the staff and resources are so depleted,” he said.

“It could also mean DAs across the state having to settle or delay cases against violent criminals or sex offenders because we might not have the manpower to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Randy Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said that services such as child support collections, juvenile intervention programs domestic violence support and victim services would be impacted negatively if more cuts were made – something he said would directly affect the local community.

Hillman said there are many people at the local level who benefit from these services that are offered by district attorneys’ offices and that it would be a shame to have to cut back on these services or cut them out completely, but they may not have a choice.

Rushing added the Alabama Department of Corrections, which uses up a significant amount of the General Fund, would see cuts that could potentially put an end to the state’s work release programs, which are designed to allow non-violent inmates to still be productive members of society while still being held accountable for the criminal actions.

“The Department of Corrections has indicated that thousands of inmates could be released sooner than expected because there aren’t enough funds to keep housing them in jail,” Rushing said.

The legal and correctional services in the state aren’t the only ones who are speaking out in support of the amendment, however.

Medical providers and hospitals across the state have spoken about how the passage of the amendment is important in terms of healthcare and medical services.

Even though many other state offices and agencies are funded through the state’s General Fund, costs associated with the administration of Medicaid, the largest part of the state’s healthcare delivery system, takes up a significant amount of General Fund monies in order to support the infrastructure of hospitals, physicians’ offices, nursing homes and pharmacies.

According to healthcare officials, more than 900,000 Alabamians rely on Medicaid, and of those covered by Medicaid, 42 percent are blind or disabled and nearly 25 percent of them are senior citizens. The rest are children, and a very small percentage are adults.

Locally, Christine Stewart, CEO of Russellville Hospital, and Glen Jones, administrator at Red Bay Hospital, have said that the passage of this amendment is critical to health care services in Franklin County and across the state.

“Any significant changes to the program would not only affect access to services for Medicaid patients, but also for everyone in our community who needs a doctor or visits our hospital regardless of their health care coverage,” Jones said.

Medical officials have said other health care services would suffer as well, such as dialysis, prescription medications for adults, critical transportation for children, and in-home care, which would all be greatly reduced or eliminated altogether.

“Without these basic services, Medicaid recipients would be forced to use hospital emergency rooms as their primary source of health care, which would be expensive, create overcrowding and limit access for most of our citizens,” Stewart said.

“Make no mistake, if this amendment fails, the health care system in our area will not be the same.”

Dr. W. Jeff Terry, past president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, said he doesn’t believe Alabama citizens know how critical this vote is

“Gov. Bentley’s administration is already well into a program to improve Medicaid but it can’t be accomplished overnight,” Terry said. “We need these three years that a ‘yes’ vote on September 18 will give Alabama.

“I can think of no more emergency situation than the one at present. If Medicaid fails, then we will lose most all of our rural hospitals and 60 percent of our nursing homes. Our two major Children’s Hospitals in Mobile and Birmingham will suffer severely. Physicians will leave the state and everyone will see their services cut.

“You can do away with the Medicaid program but you cannot do away with the Medicaid patients. Society will still have to take care of these folks, and once these hospitals and nursing homes close they can’t easily be re-opened if and when funding is restored.”

But for all the agencies and officials who are in support of the passage of the amendment, there are still those who believe the referendum should be voted down.

Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute (API), has spoken out against the amendment and the potential problems the shift in money could create for the state in the future.

“One troubling aspect about taking $437 million out of the ATF is that there is nothing in the amendment that requires the Alabama State Legislature to repay it,” Palmer said. “The claim that monies are being ‘borrowed’ is misleading although at various times, Gov. Bentley has said he ‘wants’ or ‘intends’ to pay the money back.

“To be fair, there is a bill that has been drafted for the next legislative session that would require the money to be paid back to the ATF in ten years, but a drafted bill is a far cry from a definite requirement to repay [the money] that should have been included in the amendment language.”

API has said the state already owes at least $599 million to the ATF from prior borrowing.

“If politicians did pass legislation to repay the $437.4 million, Alabama would owe the ATF over $1 billion,” Palmer said. “With the escalating costs of large programs such as Medicaid and state employee pensions and benefits, the additional debt to the ATF will likely be another ‘budgetary crisis’ for another set of politicians to deal with in the future.”

Terry contends the situation is not that dire.

“For those of you who don’t know, after we borrow this money from the trust fund for three years, the fund will still have over $300 million more than it does today because of other money going into it,” Terry said. “Our state Medicaid budget is a little over $600 million a year and this generates more than $6 billion annually to Alabama’s economy when combined with federal matching dollars.

“So [basically] folks who are voting ‘no’ are willing for us to drive our health care system into the ground and lose $6 billion to our economy just because they don’t want to borrow money out of our own savings account for this critical time in Alabama’s history.”

House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) released a statement on Thursday that called the amendment a “short-term fix” to the financial woes the state is facing with the General Fund and told citizens to vote ‘no.’

“If the [amendment] does not pass on September 18, Gov. Bentley should call a special session and consider all options proposed by both parties in the state so that we do not penalize doctors, nurses, the nursing homes and other healthcare providers who depend on Medicaid payments,” Ford said. “Medicaid is a vital state program that is in serious trouble. Because it is so vital to our state’s economic health, Medicaid needs a permanent fix, not a temporary fix or Band-Aid that we will have to replace in three years.”

Ford said instead of moving the millions of dollars into the general fund, Gov. Robert Bentley should consider other ways to prop up the General Fund such as passing more taxes like an increased tobacco tax.

“Did you know that Alabama ranks 47th in the nation in tobacco tax imposed on the sale of cigarettes?” Ford asked. “And, what if you knew that an increase of $1 of tobacco tax would raise much more than the amount of money being raided from the state’s savings account? Would you support an increase in the tobacco tax to avoid raiding or ‘borrowing’ from your state savings account?”

Even though raising taxes is an option, Bentley has been adamant that he will stick to his pledge of not raising taxes to fix the problem.

“No one wants taxes to be raised so this seems like the best option to keep the state agencies afloat for at least the next three years,” Rushing said.

“I’m not usually outspoken on these types of issues, but the Alabama Trust Fund was set up to function as a savings account, and if this isn’t the time for us to use that account, then I just don’t know what would be.”

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