Alabama vote may be
bellwether for South Carolina
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AUG. 31, 2003 - - Have you heard the one about the conservative
Republican governor who is using Biblical language to raise taxes
by $1.2 billion?
The question isn't a setup for a joke. It's something going on
two states over in Alabama. If GOP Gov. Bob Riley's "Plan for
Progress" moves forward, it could foreshadow debate in the
2004 session of South Carolina's General Assembly.
On Sept. 9, Alabamians will vote on whether to approve a plan Riley
claims would ease tax burdens on working families, drastically reform
the state's education system, protect seniors and promote government
accountability. But the state, with a budget shortfall of about
$700 million, also needs the new tax money offered by the plan to
make the books balance.
If the plan passes, Alabama residents would see property taxes
go up about 30 percent (from $30 per month on a $100,000 home to
$41). They'd also see increased sales taxes on some services and
cigarettes, and an end to deductions of federal income tax for state
tax purposes. But proponents also note that overall taxes would
go down or stay the same for about 85 percent of Alabamians. Opponents
cry about Riley's proposal as a tax on the rich that will kill growth.
If the plan doesn't pass, Alabama will be left in a big bind. Riley
says he's already generated $230 million in savings through cuts
and other practices. But without the plan, he and Alabama lawmakers
may be forced to cut education, health and other social services
to levels never experienced.
Riley is an unlikely promoter of a tax increase. He is known as
a follower of Ronald Reagan. A member of Congress at the same time
as our Gov. Mark Sanford, he was known as a tax-fighter who racked
up an 85 rating by the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy.
But faced with a financial crisis that he couldn't cut his way
out of, Riley's faith led him to conclude a tax increase and bold
restructuring of the state's tax structure was needed.
Soon after announcing his plan, Riley told the Birmingham News,
"Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least
among us. We've got to take care of the poor."
Now after spending the summer campaigning for the increase, things
don't look good for the governor, who has been joined by Democrats
and lots of people in Alabama's business community. (He said he
also was surprised at the 122-100 margin of the State GOP Executive
Committee when it voted to oppose the plan.)
Two weeks ago, some 52 percent of Alabamians opposed the plan according
to a poll from a Mobile newspaper. Only 27 percent supported it.
South Carolina politicians and budget writers are closely watching
the political and economic outcome in Alabama.
If the Riley plan passes, it's a sure bet some South Carolina politicians
will stick their necks out of the anti-tax turtle shell and start
using religious-laden language to explore tax increases. If they
do, the state may be able to find a way out of its $170 million
current shortfall and the millions of dollars needed to pay for
projected increased costs for Medicaid.
If the Riley plan doesn't pass, South Carolina taxpayers may be
in for a lackluster session in which everybody points the finger
at everyone else, but no one does real work to get something positive
done to improve education and take care of the state's pressing
Last election year, the winning bumper sticker made a great pitch
for "Leadership." Now, South Carolina can use some of
Deep knee bends
This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore: