How#039;d we get here?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Less than seven months into his administration, Gov. Bob Riley is on the campaign trail again, but this time instead of selling his ability to be governor, he's trying to sell Alabamians on a sweeping $1.2 billion tax and accountability package.

While in Congress, the Republican routinely voted against tax increases, but this time, he's said the state, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, has no other choice.

&uot;Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and that includes me,&uot; said Dwight Carlisle, state revenue commissioner. &uot;But I also know that it's true- you get what you pay for.&uot;

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With approximately four weeks before the package goes before voters on September 9 in a statewide referendum, Riley has been crisscrossing the state in an attempt to educate voters on the plan's benefits, but time is running out and recent polls show the support is not there to pass it.

&uot;I think the governor has said and I agree with him that it will be very difficult to pass, said Repre-sentative Charles Newton (D), who represents Butler, Crenshaw and Lowndes Counties. &uot;No matter what state you're in it will be hard to get a billion dollar tax increase approved. I commend Riley for trying though. He's put a package in front of the people and giving the people a chance to vote for it. I don't criticize the governor for trying. He's looking for answers and trying to find some and if it fails we're going to have to find some answers somewhere.&uot;

$600 million in debt and counting

When Gov. Bob Riley was campaigning he said no tax increases would be made until he could ensure all the waste was cut from state spending.

Six months into office he decided the state's future couldn't wait any longer. In May, he bypassed the Legislature and went directly to the people of Alabama to present his plan.

&uot;On March 4, I presented you a report on the State of our State,&uot; he said in the speech. &uot;Since that time, I have found that our financial difficulties are even greater than we originally thought. For too many years, our state government has been living on borrowed time and borrowed money n robbing Peter to pay Paul.&uot;

Riley went on to say that debt payments in Alabama are expected to increase by $110 million this year, the Medicaid budget is up by $100 million and prisons need another $100 million.

&uot;One-time sources of revenue were spent by prior administrations, but never replaced,&uot; he said. &uot;Even our children's rainy day fund will be depleted. Combine that with the sluggish economy, and you understand how we arrived here.&uot;

Although the Republican governor has fought tax increases for most of his political career, and preferred cutting government waste to increasing taxes, time ran out.

&uot;It's really to the point that we have not other option,&uot; Riley said. &uot;We have not done everything we can do to cut government spending, but we have run out of time. We are going to continue cutting, but we have a deadline approaching and a $600-million hole to fill.&uot;

Since Riley took office, his administration has cut $230 million from the budget, but Riley said that wouldn't eliminate the $600 million plus shortfall.

When forming the plan, Riley said he wanted one that would be not only fair, but also would require a great deal of reform. Without reform, Riley said he would not allow for tax increases, which is the reason the package will appear on the September 9 ballot as a whole with a yes' or no' vote.

Tax increases meshed with reform and equity

Newton said that while Riley's plan will raise taxes for some, it will help the majority of Alabamians, who earn in the middle to lower income brackets.

&uot;Alabama's tax structure should ask more of those who have greater ability to pay,&uot; he said. &uot;I think there are some people who will pay less under this plan but it will be the lower income families that will.&uot;

Carlisle agrees.

&uot;One of the governor's goals was to create a tax system that is fair and equitable,&uot; he said.

According to the Public Affairs Research Center of Alabama (PARCA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation that exists to collect, synthesize, and report information on issues of public interest affecting state and local government policy in Alabama, most Alabamians would receive a tax cut if the referendum passes. This is due to the recent $350 billion federal tax cut President Bush signed into law, which when combined with the state's tax increase, will net a savings for most Alabamians.

According to PARCA's research, a married couple with one child who earns $40,000, slightly above the state average of $34,135, will receive an income tax cut of $262. The plan also calls for raising the threshold of taxation on a family of four from $4,600 to $20,000.

At the same time Riley is asking a minority of Alabamians to pay more, he's also calling for more accountability in state government.

&uot;If we are going to ask you to give more, then you are going to get more and still have one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation,&uot; Riley said in his address to the people.

The governor's plan calls for all new revenue generated by the plan to be deposited in the Alabama Excellence Fund that will be used for targeted investment such as fully funding the Alabama Reading Initiative and expanding the Alabama Math and Science Initiatives, all programs Riley is saying will catapult Alabama to the top in education nationwide.

A tough road ahead

Roughly three months after Riley rolled out his plan for change and the legislature approved sending it to the voters, organizations are lining up to campaign against it.

&uot;Many Alabama taxpayers were able to squeeze a few thousand dollars out of their family budget to get through this economic downturn, and state government can squeeze millions from its budget,&uot; said Robert McConnell, chairman of the Tax Accountability Coalition.

The Tax Accountability Coalition was formed shortly after Riley announced his tax and accountability package to speak out against the governor's tax and reform plan. McConnell is the former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

Groups like the Christian Coalition, the Alabama Farmers Federation and the National Federation of Independent Business are joining the fight against tax increase.

Newton says for him it all comes down to what a person's basic philosophy on taxes is.

&uot;What Riley is saying is those that are in the higher tax bracket should pay more, so I'm telling people if you believe in that philosophy you should vote for it, but if you don't believe there is enough accountability in it to suite you or you are against paying taxes in general you should vote against it.&uot;

Riley and his staff will be campaigning for the passage of the package up until the referendum, but Riley himself admits it will be a tough sell. Riley also said he's not looking to the next election either.

&uot;I understand I have a temporary job, that there will be another governor after me,&uot; he said. &uot;But while I am here, I am going to do everything I can to fix our problems, and if that means serving only one term as governor n so be it.&uot;

The Alex City Outlook contributed to this article.