HUNTSVILLE — Dr. Don Williamson, Alabama’s state health officer, said it is best to think of the proposed $437 million withdrawal from the Alabama Trust Fund as a bridge that allows time for the state to solve the bigger problem of failing and falling revenues.
Williamson spoke at a forum in Huntsville on Monday concerning the proposed amendment.
The amendment allows the Legislature to withdraw $145.8 million annually for three years from the Alabama Trust Fund and use those funds to prop up the General Fund budget. Alabama voters have the chance to pass or reject the proposed constitutional amendment Sept. 18.
The General Fund budget funds most state agencies, including the Department of Public Health, Medicaid, transportation and corrections.
The Alabama Trust Fund was created in the 1980s and consists of royalties from natural gas wells drilled in state-owned waters along the Gulf of Mexico.
Williamson, who has also been tasked with heading the Medicaid Transition Task Force, said time is needed to solve problems with Medicaid funding and delivery of Medicaid services. He said he believes both of those can be accomplished, but he said without a three-year “bridge” that would be created if the constitutional amendment is passed, the state’s Medicaid system could be damaged beyond repair.
Williamson said that is because the state’s operation, which is also funded through matching federal dollars, is already “bare bones.”
“Alabama has tried to live with as little state money as possible to fund Medicaid,” he said.
He said the more than 900,000 Alabamians who depend on Medicaid for health-care insurance cost the state approximately $615 million in state funds.
He said comparatively, Mississippi, which has 640,000 Medicaid participants, spends $700,000 million in state funds for the program.
The funds states dedicated for Medicaid are then multiplied at the federal level, meaning, Williamson said, every dollar the state cuts from Medicaid actually means a total loss of $3 or more.
Gov. Robert Bentley supports the passage of the amendment and said, in a prepared statement, the amendment is needed to maintain “essential state agencies.”
“The amendment will allow us to access a portion of the money the state has in a savings account in order to offset those cuts without raising taxes,” Bentley said. “This is about making the most use of the resources we have available.”
Last week, the CEOs of Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield and Shoals Hospital in Muscle Shoals signed a letter supporting the amendment, saying passage of the amendment will allow continued access to health-care services the community has come to expect.
Opponents of the amendment said the Legislature has not been wise in using other “rainy day” funds in the past and can’t be trusted to wisely spend the money sought from the Alabama Trust Fund.
Robert Jones, a retired engineer from Madison County, said the Legislature needs to work harder within its current budget to “unfreeze” some allocations to better fund “essential programs.”
“I don’t believe things are as bad as (Legislators) say they are,” he said.
Other opponents criticize the wording of the amendment because it does not contain a mandatory repayment of the funds.
But Republican lawmakers, including Bentley, have said the state will repay the trust fund in 10 years.
“As we improve the financial health of the state, we will be well positioned to repay the Alabama Trust Fund,” Bentley said.
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.