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Ala. governor brings morality into debate over tax package

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–Alabama’s Southern Baptist governor is promoting a tax reform package that will lower taxes on the poor, saying it’s the Christian thing to do.

But his critics point out that the plan also implements the largest tax increase in state history — $1.2 billion.

The tax reform plan, which will go before voters Sept. 9, has resulted in some unusual alliances. The chairman of the state Democratic Party supports the plan, as does the Alabama Education Association, which opposed Riley during the 2002 elections.

The Christian Coalition of America supports the plan, although its Alabama chapter opposes it.

During his State of the State speech May 19, Governor Bob Riley, a Republican, told citizens that Alabama was in the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. The state has a $675 million deficit.

“I have spent most of my life fighting higher taxes,” he said. “… No one likes to raise taxes, especially me. … But I believe we have no other choice.”

In selling the plan, Riley has focused on Alabama’s tax structure, which some say is the most regressive in the nation. The state has the nation’s lowest income tax threshold, taxing a family of four that makes as little as $4,600 a year.

“According to our Christian ethics, we’re supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor,” Riley said in an Associated Press story. “It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax.”

During his State of the State speech Riley warned that a failure to raise revenue would result in prisoners being released early and the elderly losing their Medicaid payments.

“These are not scare tactics,” he said, adding that it is a “reality.”

A July poll showed Riley’s reform package losing. The poll of 500 registered voters by Alabama media outlets showed that 49 percent were against it, 39 percent for it and 12 percent undecided. Interestingly, 58 percent of those with incomes under $30,000 — those who figure to benefit from the plan — opposed it.

Critics of the plan concede that Alabama’s tax structure needs fixed, although they say it can be done without raising taxes. They also point out that the tax hike ($1.2 billion) is substantially larger than the budget deficit ($675 million). Some 2,000 people attended a no-tax rally Aug. 10.

“To give tax relief to the less fortunate is something we can all agree on, but all families deserve tax relief,” Christian Coalition of Alabama president John Giles, who opposes the plan, said in an AP story.

According to the governor’s website, the plan will raise the state income tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent for individual incomes over $75,000 and family incomes over $150,000. It also will raise the income tax threshold for a family of four from $4,600 to $17,000 this year and $20,000 eventually.

Much of the tax hike will go toward education. Among other things, Riley’s plan implements a program in which high school graduates who achieve a certain grade point average or standardized test score are awarded college scholarships. The plan also earmarks more money for public schools.

If the plan is passed, Riley predicts, Alabama’s students will have the highest reading test scores in the nation within six years.

“I am asking you to invest in our future — to finally move Alabama forward,” he told citizens in May.

The battle over taxes comes just four years after Alabama voters defeated a lottery proposal. At least one Baptist fears that support for a lottery will grow if the tax plan fails.

“I’m not going to tell people how to vote, but if this does not pass, we will have to face the gambling situation again,” said Joe Bob Mizzell, director of Christian ethics for the Alabama Baptist Convention.

Mizzell’s office has prepared packets of information containing editorials and viewpoints on both sides of the issue as well as an explanation of the different aspects of the bills making up the package.

“This is a divisive issue,” he acknowledged. “There are Baptists and Christians on both sides of it, and they are sincere about their positions.”
Based on reporting by Michael Foust & Jennifer Davis Rash.

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