From Obamacare to Common Core, Alabama is known for being among the first to react in high-profile cases of DC overreach. Under the banner of the state motto, “We dare defend our rights,” Alabamians seem to share an innate sense of self-determination.
Yet, despite its long-standing reputation, the state has essentially welcomed much of the federal interference that jeopardizes voters’ treasured autonomy. Case in point, a 2017 study ranked Alabama the fourth most federally dependent state, having accepted enough federal funds to comprise more than 40% of the state budget.
More surprising than this reality is voter sentiment toward it. A recent poll, commissioned by the Alabama Policy Institute, surveyed Republican primary voters in the state—those who ought to be most troubled by the numbers—revealed surprising ambivalence, with only 28% expressing displeasure at the disproportionate federal share of our state budget.
The outcome is a sobering paradox for Alabama’s Republican electorate: voters complacent about reliance on federal support for solvency cannot also boast of meaningful autonomy.
Ironically, a closer look at the same survey reveals strong agreement with such a conclusion. More than two-thirds of respondents felt that significant reliance on federal funding hinders a state’s true degree of independence. Even if those polled offered a justification for such glaring contradictions (a question not polled), most do not trust DC to be a consistent and reliable source of financial support. In fact, 79% believe the state should be prepared for the likelihood that DC will reduce the amount of this funding.
This lack of voter confidence in the state’s fiscal independence and stability is alarming. If prudence alone does not demand that state legislators be more discerning in the evaluation of federal funding opportunities, political expediency should.
While lawmakers often acquiesce in these programs by characterizing the money as “free,” an overwhelming 80% of astute respondents rejected that premise, believing instead that such funds usually come with strings attached. That disposition is well-founded, as evidenced by some of Washington’s most infamous policies—to include the former first lady’s signature school lunch rules and the now-defunct national speed limit—which were imposed on the states through conditional federal grants.
Moreover, an influx of federal funding rates poorly in traditional measures of good government, including: indeterminate accountability, decreased transparency, increased spending, and an abdication of responsibility for essential services by those governments closest to the people.
The state would be well-served to evaluate its federal funding scheme with a critical eye. Even if the level of support on which the state relies cannot be measurably decreased in the near future, a plan to evaluate and bolster the state’s own financial readiness is in order. To that end, poll results indicate a way forward, suggesting strong support for more stringent vetting of available federal grants, as well as increased scrutiny and transparency of those dollars once they have been accepted.
Whatever the path, the state’s voters and legislators must come to terms with the true cost of so-called budget breaks afforded by conditional federal funds. Alabamians must learn to trust their instincts and become more wise to the specifics of Trojan horse-style dollars coming back to the state. And legislators, elected to govern according to Alabama’s best interests, must address its financial readiness in order to preserve their ability to do so.