Alabama vote reflects national concerns about social safety net

By Tom Baxter

With all the exciting politics going on these days, it’s small wonder that a vote last week on a referendum to change the Alabama Constitution received scant attention outside our neighboring state. But obscure votes like this one can sometimes tell us more about the changing political winds than polls or headlines.

To put this in a national context, we should note that Alabama lies in the heartland of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent – certainly not the 47 percent that will always vote for Barack Obama, but the 47 percent that doesn’t pay federal income taxes. It ranks fifth in the country in non-payers, and sits between Mississippi and Georgia, the states which rank first and second in this category.

Alabama’s Medicaid obligation is also soaring, as natural disasters, an aging population and the long reach of the recession have thrown increasing numbers into the social safety net. But this is also one of the most politically conservative states in the nation, and earlier 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 a few months ago.

The starkly-worded ballot question cast it as a measure “to prevent the mass release of prisoners from Alabama prisons, and to protect critical health services to Alabama children, elderly, and mothers.” But 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.

“I guess I should be worried and afraid, but I am not,” an elderly voter says in an ad opposing the change, funded by the conservative Smart Girl Politics group. “The supporters of the Sept. 18 amendment are full of crap!”

The coalition against the measure included Tea Party and other grassroots conservative groups, as well as some Democrats unwilling to let the Republicans off the hook – a combination roughly like the one which successfully opposed the TSPLOST in Georgia. It also included an influential industry ally, the Alabama Forestry Association, which the TSPLOST opponents here didn’t have.

But Bentley, the most unheralded of the new group of Southern Republican governors elected in 2010, has proved to be by far the ablest field general. The strategy  employed in this election was almost the opposite of the TSPLOST approach. Bentley got a stand-alone election day, guaranteeing a low turnout. The well-funded campaign in support of the measure avoided big media buys and focused on turning out the voters most directly affected by the looming cuts. The measure carried by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

As skillfully waged as the campaign was, such strong approval for this measure also demonstrates a clear swing in the public mood from the militantly anti-government sentiments of 2010. It’s not yet clear whether voters like those in Alabama would approve any kind of tax increase to keep the social safety net intact, but they aren’t above raiding the cookie jar to keep things rolling a while longer.

When Bentley compared his plan to taking money out of savings to cover a shortfall in the family checking account, a Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Hubbard, responded that it was “more akin to dipping into your 401K each month for the next three years to pay your mortgage note without first looking for a smaller house or a better paying job.”

Deep down, most of the voters who approved the measure last week probably know this comparison is about right. But they couldn’t stomach the deep cuts that would have been triggered by the rejection of the measure. In the great national debate over entitlements, this is where the rock is beginning to come in contact with the hard place. Alabama is about as safe a Romney state as there is, but this vote serves as a sort of ironic commentary on the national debate over the social safety net fueled by Romney’s “47 percent” remark.

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.

 

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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