Alabama Voters Push Back Against Destruction of Safety Net

It got zero national attention, but there was an interesting and potentially important ballot initiative in Alabama last week, wherein voters by a two-to-one margin agreed to a constitutional amendment that shifted funds from a oil-and-gas trust fund to plug a large hole in the state budget engineered by the newly Republican legislature.

Veteran reporter Tom Baxter explains in the Atlanta-based SaportaReport:

[E]arlier this year the Alabama House balked at approving a budget that met the minimum the state needed to put up to receive matching federal Medicaid funds. His back against a wall, Gov. Robert Bentley got a Constitutional amendment onto the ballot that would shift $145.8 million a year for three years from the Alabama Trust Fund, a $2.3 billion pot funded by Gulf Coast oil and gas leases, into the state’s general fund.

Essentially, this conservative Republican governor was calling on the voters to approve a bailout, and last week they did, as overwhelmingly as their neighbors in most of Georgia rejected the TSPLOST [Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax] a few months ago.

The survival of Medicaid was the key issue, though amendment proponents cast it as a sort of keep-the-prison-doors-closed initiative as well. But as Baxter notes, violent opposition to any sort of public spending measures has been a hallmark of Alabama politics for years:

Alabama voters have heard apocalyptic talk before and been unmoved, and they have been notably hostile to well-funded efforts supported by the business and political establishment. They soundly rejected a lottery-for-education referendum in 1999, and an attempt to reform the state’s highly regressive tax system and raise $1.2 billion in new revenues in 2003.

Most of the opposition to the initiative came from Tea Party groups which, of course, include a lot of folks who would be happy to see the permanent abolition of Medicaid. As Baxter suggests, Alabama voters may have demonstrated the Tea Folk no longer have much big mo’, even in the deepest red state:

Looking past the current campaign season, the vote in Alabama could have implications for those states, like Georgia, where Republicans have so far rejected the expansion of their state Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act. Much of this defiance was predicated on the assumption that Obama would be gone next year, and ObamaCare with him. That doesn’t seem so likely anymore.

A few months ago it may have seemed politically viable, even easy, to turn down a large offer of federal money in states where the health care system is running on a shoestring. The sentiments expressed in the vote last week in Alabama are a hint that this may not be easy at all.

It’s taking conservatives quite some time to accept that 2010, not 2008, may have been an “outlier” of an election year. But it’s good to see some doubts sown in such an unlikely place.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.