MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Fresh off getting voters to approve a $437 million constitutional amendment, Gov. Robert Bentley is crisscrossing the state to seek support for a much smaller amendment that could determine whether he keeps his campaign promise to reduce unemployment.
Bentley tells audiences that they need to approve Amendment 2 on Nov. 6 because paychecks are at stake.
"The bottom line is this will give our state a new avenue for providing economic development incentives, and that will help us create more new jobs," he said at a stop in Birmingham.
The proposed amendment cleared the Legislature in May with only three negative votes. Since then, there has been no organized campaign against it.
It would change an earlier amendment that allows Alabama to sell up to $750 million in bonds to provide money to give as incentives for new industries to locate in the state. Bentley said he's used incentives for all sizes of projects, ranging from recruiting an Airbus aircraft project that will create 1,000 jobs in Mobile to saving 150 jobs in Hackleburg by getting Wrangler to rebuild a distribution center destroyed by a tornado.
Alabama has issued $720 million in bonds to pay economic incentives, leaving only $30 million that can still be sold. By comparison, Alabama offered $153 million in incentives for Airbus. The state pays off the bonds with royalties from natural gas wells in state-owned waters along the coast.
Some of the $720 million in bonds have already been paid off, but that doesn't matter under Alabama's Constitution. Also, the Constitution doesn't allow for refinancing bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates.
Amendment 2 would allow for refinancing. It also would calculate how much money is left for new bonds based on how much debt is outstanding — not the total amount of bonds issued over time. For instance, Alabama has paid off about $130 million of the bonds issued so far, meaning that is roughly how much money could be available for bond projects if the amendment is approved, according to state estimates.
Democratic Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma said he voted against the measure in May because it allows a governor for the first time to keep issuing bonds over and over without a vote of the people, provided the total debt doesn't exceed $750 million.
"It was always a protective thing to go back to the people," Sanders said.
Bentley, a former Tuscaloosa physician, won election in 2010 by telling voters that Alabama was hurting economically and it needed a doctor. He promised to work for free until the unemployment rate dropped to 5.2 percent. It's currently at 8.5 percent.
As governor, Bentley said he's the official that a corporate CEO wants to talk to when deciding whether to locate a project in Alabama or another state.
"If we are looking at companies to come here, we have to be able to have some incentive money," the Republican governor said.
Bentley is speaking about the constitutional amendment several times each week throughout the state. It's the same strategy he used last month to promote a constitutional amendment that allowed his administration to get $437 million out of a trust fund to help balance the General Fund budget for the next three years. Voters approved that measure by a 2-to-1 margin.
Amendment 2 is one of 11 constitutional amendments that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Republican state Rep. Jay Love of Montgomery, who sponsored the legislation setting up Amendment 2, said the governor's campaign is crucial even though there is no campaign against it.
"It's an uphill climb for any constitutional amendment because there are so many on the ballot," he said.
From Dothan to Huntsville, Bentley has teased audiences with how many jobs might be created if they approve the amendment.
"We've got some projects I can't talk about," Bentley said. "We've got some major projects that will help this state that are truly significant — more significant than Airbus, and that's pretty significant."
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