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SUNDAY, JUNE 3, 2007

Low turnout expected for Tuesday vote

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — “Low turnout, unbelievably low turnout,” is the prediction one political science professor made about the upcoming special election on two constitutional amendments Tuesday.

“The issues are not what I call soap opera issues,” Athens State University political science professor Jess Brown, said. “There are no drugs, no sex, no liquor or athletics. There are major issues, but no conflict to get the voters and the media interested.”

Instead, Brown said, voters will make decisions about “boring but essential services to help fund benefits for one group of the population” and pay for economic incentives for another. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals all seem to support the amendments, he feels.

Some years when elections involve only constitutional amendments as the one Tuesday does, voters stay home in droves, said Janice McDonald, elections director in the secretary of state’s office.

The exceptions include a 1999 vote on whether to allow a state lottery and a 2003 vote to increase taxes to fund education. McDonald said more than 50 percent of state voters turned out for both elections after heated pre-election campaigns. Both measures failed.

“You will not see that this time,” Gov. Bob Riley said. “When you have an emotionally charged subject, the turnout is higher.”

Still, Riley said, polls indicate that Alabama voters support the amendments. He hopes they also go vote.

On Tuesday, Alabama voters will determine by their votes on Amendment 1 whether the state can increase from $350 million to $750 million its ability to borrow bond money for economic development.

North Alabama voters may think of the first amendment only as a vote on incentives for the giant ThyssenKrupp steel mill going to Mobile County. Decatur Mayor Don Kyle said, in the future, the increased bond borrowing ability could help locally.

Kyle said if the bond money is available, Decatur and other parts of North Alabama could benefit from the state’s ability to help finance the extra heavy roadbeds, utility lines and site preparation costs that are often a part of recruiting new industry.

He mentioned the heavy roadbed needed for Nucor Steel’s expansion as one example. Possible others include a railcar plant likely coming to the Shoals area, and future needs for a huge Limestone County tract recently designated as an industrial megasite.

Jeremy Nails, president of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, called the vote crucial. Incentives not only help recruit new industry, but also help with expansions for existing industries, he said.

Nails said the only negative comments he has heard about Amendment 1 are from people who thought the state was going to raise their taxes.

“That is not true,” Nails said.

While some people may question whether the state should offer economic incentives, Riley said he believes as long as other states offer incentives to attract industry, then Alabama has to as well.

“The last thing we need to do is remove ourselves from competition,” Riley said.

Voters will also decide in Amendment 2 whether the state should set up special trusts to pay for the state’s portion of future retired state employee and education retiree health benefits costs.

If voters approve the second amendment, Retirement Systems of Alabama Chief Executive Officer David Bronner said ,the trusts will pay 60 to 70 percent of the cost for the state’s share of retired public employee health benefits.

The trusts would also assure that the funds would be used only for that purpose in the future.

RSA Deputy Director Marcus Reynolds said federal accounting regulations now require for the first time that states report mandated retiree benefits as financial obligations. States without a plan to pay for the mandates could pay higher interest rates to borrow money in the future.

Republican Riley, and Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. and Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, both Democrats, all planned to contact voters before Tuesday.

Even U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, a Huntsville Democrat, used part of his political campaign fund to pay for ads in his district, urging voters to pass amendments that Republican Riley wants.

Riley said this weekend that as a way to generate awareness, many Republican Party voters will get recorded telephone reminders asking them to vote Tuesday.

Private fundraising by Alabama businesses and groups like the Business Council of Alabama and Alabama Education Association helped fund get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Political scientist Brown said he hopes people vote “if they feel they are a reasonably informed voter.” Brown said he would rather see low turnout among an informed electorate than a high turnout among voters who don’t understand the issues.

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