Alabama vote roils alliances and stirs moral quandaries

Tuesday's sweeping tax measure goes beyond ledgers, striking at the core of the state's identity itself.

It is a proposed tax hike that's thundered with biblical language, captured Oprah Winfrey's attention, and encapsulated the moral quandaries of a nation and Alabama's slippery foothold in the New South. It's pitted a Republican governor against his own party, seated him alongside Democrats, and sent normally conservative evangelicals flocking to a more liberal plan.

On Tuesday, Alabama residents vote on a plan to overhaul their tax system by changing their state constitution. Gov. Bob Riley (R) says the move will be more fair to poor Alabamians and help avert a looming crisis in schools and healthcare.

The price of failure, with a $675 million deficit, is dire, Gov. Bob Riley insists: 5,000 prison inmates turned loose, classrooms packed with 50 percent more kids, hundreds of Medicaid patients turned out of nursing homes, a drop to 50 in nearly every national ranking. He's not shy about biblical overtones, touting Tuesday's vote on a tax increase eight times the largest in state history as a call to "take care of the least among us."

But to Alabamians weaned on wariness of government, such moral appeals mean little, and tax-leeriness runs deep: After the Civil War, tax hikes left many farmers here landless when they couldn't pay. Now, the prospect of tax increases for middle- and upper-income earners stirs up bitter memories - enough to roil old political alliances.

"Most people don't trust the government," says Wilbert Richardson, a Montgomery mechanic.

The archaic tax code Alabama uses today is enshrined in the constitution, dating back to 1901, which makes the referendum necessary. Timber companies, which own over 70 percent of Alabama land, still pay less than 2 percent of state property taxes. Here, timberland is taxed at 95 cents an acre; in neighboring Georgia, it's $5 an acre. Alabama compensates by placing an unusual share of the tax burden on the poor, with income taxes starting at $4,600 and a grocery tax that tops 10 percent in some parts of the state.

In terms of parties and tax hikes, times have changed - and not just in Alabama. Facing vast deficits, a few Republican governors across the country have turned cautiously to tax increases - from South Carolina Gov. Rick Sanford's proposal of a levy hike on cigarettes to Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's proposal of $1 billion in tax increases. All this leaves antitax groups still more determined to hold the line on Alabama's far more sweeping move.

But in the buckle of the Bible Belt, Riley is making the overhaul of an antiquated tax system more than a temporary fiscal fix: To him, it's moral referendum and a rebirth. In a speech blitz and TV ad campaign punctuated by "What would Jesus tax?" he insists the government has a duty to take care of the poor and to lift Alabama out of the cellar on almost every economic and educational barometer.

While in the House of Representatives, then-Representative Riley won commendations from Grover Nor-quist's antitax group, Americans for Tax Reform. Running for Alabama governor on a "no new taxes" campaign, he won last year, defeating Democrat Don Siegelman and his run at being Alabama's first New South governor.

But faced with a growing deficit, due in part to federal tax cuts and rising Medicaid costs, along with years of voter distrust and neglect, Riley underwent something of a conversion on becoming governor. Now, the hike of his Plan for Progress is double what the state needs to fill that deficit.

"Politics makes strange bedfellows, but this is over the top," said Secretary of State Nancy Worley, one of few Democrats to win election to statewide office last year and one of two constitutional officers supporting the tax reform package.

Ms. Worley, a long-time lobbyist and retired school teacher, supports the tax package not because it's perfect, but because the education system is in financial crisis. "We need the money for schools, and it has to come from somewhere," she says.

The other odd bedfellow is Attorney General Bill Pryor, a religious, conservative Republican whose support of the tax increase, observers say, could damage him politically - and tarnish his chances at higher office.

Progressive candidates here have tried and failed to raise taxes on land owned by out-of-state paper companies over the years. Much of the state has been turned into pine plantations over the past century for Alabama's vast wood-products industry. The second largest industry here is the chicken business, which is also opposed to the plan, along with the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Ms. Worley says one strategy might be to pitch the plan as a way to regain local control and recoup money lost in federal tax cuts. But that has not been Riley's tactic. Political observers have also wondered why proponents don't emphasize a traditional conservative stand against federal control - as Gov. George Wallace did in his day.

Among organized religious groups, the national Christian Coalition supports the plan on moral grounds, but the state chapter opposes it, along with fundamentalist denominations like the Church of God. The Southern Baptist Convention, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians support it, polls show.

The Republican Party executive committee, meeting last month, voted 122 to 100 to oppose the plan. Riley's reforms have also split the Democrats between some of the moderate pro-business crowd, who support the plan for the educated work force it would help create, and segments of the African-American wing that distrust the "Big Mules."

A poll by the University of South Alabama, shows the plan failing, with 26 percent in favor and 57 percent against. "All my life, we've been 47th, 48th, or 49th. I have never understood why," Riley says. "Is there something about us that says we can't excel at something other than football? I don't believe that."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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