HUNTSVILLE, Ala.(WHNT) - It's a super-sized piggy bank that can only be opened by voters, and some say the future of Alabama's Medicaid program hinges on what they decide.
A statewide referendum to be decided in less than two weeks asks voters to allow lawmakers to borrow more than $400 million from the state's oil and gas fund, a de facto savings account that currently holds more than $2 billion and is supposed to be used for emergencies only.
Proponents of the plan said it's needed to cover projected budget deficits in each of the next three years for Alabama's general fund, which includes more than $500 million per year for Medicaid spending.
"I don't think they're aware of how this is going to affect their coverage," said Kim Parker.
Parker is a dental hygienist at Children's Dentistry of Huntsville. More than 90 percent of the children Parker treats are on Medicaid. There's a great unknown looming at her office these days, with a statewide vote in two weeks potentially determining the future of the dental practice.
"It's a big concern for us," said Parker. "You want to take care of people, but you also want to take care of yourself because it comes out of the taxpayers' dollars."
On Wednesday, Alabama Medicaid Chief Don Williamson said a "no" vote on September 18th would leave no choice except massive cuts in Medicaid, a scenario he compared to waterboarding.
But opponents of the plan said those claims were simply not true. State Sen. Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) told WHNT News 19 that lawmakers could still cut fat from plenty of other agencies that have yet to be reviewed, keeping Medicaid largely intact.
"The sky is not falling," said Sanford, who has urged his constituents to vote no on the referendum. "Will hard choices have to be made? Yes...I believe we can find the money that's necessary to make sure that government stays functioning and operates without raiding the trust. There's nobody around here that I know that is not concerned about the well-being of the children, the well-being of the poor."
Lawmakers will likely hold a special session of the legislature before October if voters say no in order to make the necessary budget cuts. Gov. Robert Bentley threw his support behind the savings withdrawal plan earlier this year.