BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Less than a week before Alabama voters go to the polls to vote on Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax package, Southern Baptists — much like the rest of the state — remain divided.
The latest poll of statewide voters, released by The Mobile Register and the University of South Alabama, has Riley’s plan losing 57-26 percent. But those on both sides of the debate expressed doubt at the poll’s 31-point gap. The referendum is Sept. 9.
Eight past presidents of the Alabama Baptist State Convention endorsed the plan in early August, as did the Christian Coalition of America. But the Alabama chapter of the Christian Coalition opposes the plan, and Christians throughout the state are divided.
Supporters say that the package will raise much-needed revenue and will reform a regressive 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.
But opponents say that the tax hike of $1.2 billion is much greater than the deficit itself ($675 million). They say that the tax structure can be changed without raising taxes so extensively.
Both sides have been trading arguments in letters to The Alabama Baptist state newspaper since it began running weekly articles on the tax plan; in addition, editor Bob Terry wrote a column supportive of the plan.
Tom Corts, president of Samford University in Birmingham, wrote of Terry’s stance, “I thank you and applaud your courageous leadership in the article favoring the governor’s ‘Plan for Progress.’ … You did the right thing.”
Troy King, legal adviser to the governor, wrote, “As an Alabamian, a Baptist and a father who is concerned about the future of his children … I am pleased to know that … you … have taken a stand beside Gov. Riley and on behalf of the responsible governance of our state.
“The reform and accountability package that he has proposed is sweeping and will fundamentally improve the way our government operates and will bring fairness and equity to our tax system,” King wrote. “One day, when Alabamians look back on these historic days and this defining struggle for our state’s future, I know that they will be glad there were men, like you, who were willing to step forward and change Alabama for the better forever.”
Rob Martin of Auburn, Ala., meanwhile, expressed the sentiment of other readers.
“I feel that you have used your favored position on The Alabama Baptist to support a politically divisive issue upon which Alabama Baptists do not agree,” he wrote. “It seems abundantly clear to me that Alabama Baptists are divided over the governor’s proposal. You also seem to have joined others who imply that opposition to the governor’s tax proposal is not a Christian position.”
Cynthia Sneed of Gadsden, Ala., wrote, “How dare you [Bob Terry] or Riley suggest that those of us who oppose this package are ‘immoral’ or ‘lesser Christians.'”
Alabama voters bucked the national trend by defeating a state lottery proposal four years ago. Some voters worry that if the tax package fails, politicians once more will say a state lottery is the solution to the state’s budget woes.
“If this tax reform package should fail and we sit on the sidelines and abstain from the discussion, we will have virtually no credibility if we seek to advocate on behalf of the poor of our state in a lottery campaign,” wrote Michael Johnson, Robert Johnston Jr. and Joe Wise of Fort Payne, Ala.
The eight former state presidents supported the plan during a meeting Aug. 5, saying that while the plan isn’t perfect it deserves the support of Alabamians. The move followed a call to prayer by state convention officers, who on July 25 encouraged “Alabama Baptists to observe a time of prayer for our state on Sunday, Sept. 7.”
The statement by the presidents reads in part: “This is a historic opportunity for each of us to make a significant and positive difference in Alabama.”
Supporting the proposal allows Alabama Baptists to follow through with a stand they made almost three years ago, the presidents said. During the 2000 state convention, messengers passed a resolution calling for the governor and the state legislature to “bring relief and justice to the poor who are our neighbors.”
“As former presidents [of the convention], we are giving our approval of what our convention wanted to do,” said Dan Ireland, a member of the Birmingham-area Green Valley Baptist Church and executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program.
Walter Nunn, pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church in Huntsville, said, “The present system is … grossly unfair.”
But in letters to The Alabama Baptist, several readers took issue with Terry’s opinion that Riley’s tax plan follows through with what Alabama Baptists requested.
Some readers noted that while Alabama Baptists did call for tax reform, they “stopped short of supporting any particular tax reform package or approach.”
Compiled from reporting by Jennifer Davis Rash.