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Ala. tax reform proposal loses by sizeable margin

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Alabama voters sent a definite message against new taxes when they defeated the much-publicized tax reform proposal two to one in a Sept. 9 referendum.

The vote dealing with the largest tax increase in the state’s history attracted nearly 1.3 million voters with 68 percent voting against the plan and 32 percent supporting it.

Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax package would have overhauled the state’s tax system and prevented what will now mean massive budget cuts in both the education and general fund. With the failure of the tax plan, the Alabama legislature will meet in special session Sept. 15 to adopt an education and general fund budget for 2004.

“I have heard what the people of Alabama have said,” Riley said less than two hours after the polls closed. The people want smaller government until the government can prove it is a good steward of the people’s money, he noted.

Political analysts said the tax package was too complicated and too much, too soon, but many are also saying that the no vote was as much a sign of distrust as it was to opposing a tax increase.

“This was a resounding vote of no confidence,” said Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute. “The people say they are willing to do more, but what good does it do to give the people who made the mess in the first place more money?

“There is a lack of trust of government at all levels (of the state),” said Palmer, who opposed the tax plan. Palmer said voters need to know where their money is going before they can be convinced to send more to the state.

Dan Ireland, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), agreed that voters “voiced a strong distrust of the legislative process.”

Ireland, a former past president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, joined seven other past presidents in endorsing Riley’s plan. While he was surprised at the vote margin, Ireland said legislators could read the vote as a vote against them.

“The legislature will take note that the people are concerned,” he said. “A lot of legislators are already reacting to the distrust and realize that they need to clean up their act and be more responsive to the people.”

Anticipating a bombardment of gambling legislation during the 2004 legislative session, Ireland hopes the legislators will remember the people of Alabama said no to the lottery in 1999.

“Gambling is not the answer,” he said.

Alabama Baptists were among the forerunners in helping to defeat a statewide lottery in 1999. In 2000, messengers to the Alabama Baptist State Convention adopted a resolution calling for the governor and legislature to “bring relief and justice to the poor who are our neighbors.”

Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist and proponent of Riley’s tax plan, said, “Alabama Baptists have expressed their feeling about the tax structure. It is unfair and unjust because the poor pay a greater percentage of taxes than the rich.

“There is great animosity about the unfair tax structure,” Terry said. “But we are not agreed on the remedy. A lot of folk had questions about the remedy proposed. It is obvious that the vast majority of Alabamians felt it was not the appropriate remedy for our problem.”

Terry said Alabamians will now have to find a remedy that addresses the problem and is acceptable.

“It is a difficult process,” he said. “In the meantime, we will have a difficult time in Alabama because of the economic condition of our state. I hope the governor’s call to remember the weakest among us will be heeded as the cuts are made.”

Proponents and opponents of the tax plan are saying they will work together to find a solution.

John Giles, president of Christian Coalition of Alabama and strong opponent of the tax plan, said he is ready to roll up his sleeves and “help plan how to fill the huge state deficit.”

“The governor and the Legislature should use the next few years to rapidly employ fiscally responsible stewardship practices to build goodwill and restore trust among citizens,” Giles said. “Second, we should look with decisive eyes at all non-classroom expenditures as well as our escalating administrative costs in an effort to marshal more of our valuable resources to the classroom

“Finally we should immediately implement a long-term strategic planning process, reviewing all state programs to ensure they are market and needs driven instead of politically or bureaucratically driven,” he said. “We should have specific measurable goals that can be reported to the public.”

Palmer added, “We should avoid attacking each other and attack the problem.”

Riley plans to submit his budget proposal to the legislature Sept. 15 during the special Session. It is anticipated that he will offer no revenue-raising bills, leaving the legislature to decide whether to make the cuts without implementing new forms of revenue or attempt to implement a tax increase of their choosing.

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  • Jennifer Davis Rash