While the national media gaze has fixed upon the battle to move a two-and-a-half-ton Ten Commandments monument out of view in the state’s judiciary building, Alabama is about to have its most important election in living memory. The September 9 tax-reform vote has implications for every state drowning in deficits. It will be yes or no for the only item on Alabama’s ballot: Amendment One, authorizing a $1.2 billion revenue-raising package of desperately needed money for education, healthcare and job training. Approval would mean a first step toward overhauling one of the most regressive state tax structures in the United States. Proportionally, Alabama taxes its poorest citizens three times as much as its wealthiest.
Republican Governor Bob Riley is the unexpected instigator of tax fairness. Everyone who voted for him last year, and everyone who didn’t, pegged the former congressman and rural Clay County agribusinessman as an ultraconservative Reaganite. They weren’t altogether wrong. Mention capital punishment, abortion, gay rights or gun control and that Bob Riley readily appears. But invoke Christian stewardship and Jesus’s call to aid “the least of these,” and you face Riley’s startling transformation.
Somewhere on the campaign trail, Riley became “convicted” by the power of an essay titled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics,” by University of Alabama tax-law professor Susan Pace Hamill. Hamill, a Methodist given to evangelical urgency, documented how the state tax system “economically oppresses low-income Alabamians” while benefiting the wealthy, warning that “individuals claiming to be part of the People of God can no longer complacently tolerate Alabama’s tax structure.” In editorials and public meetings, she and a chorus of others have challenged the piety of politicians and the priorities of religious leaders in the Heart of Dixie, where nine out of ten adults say they practice Christianity. Govenor Riley, a Southern Baptist, began talking about the “immorality” of a system that starts taxing family income at $4,600, but can’t generate enough money from corporations and upper-bracket taxpayers to minimally fund public schools, nursing homes, prisons and other state services.
How jerry-built and precarious is Alabama’s fiscal house? Straitjacketed by the nation’s lengthiest and worst state constitution, a 1901 document designed by Black Belt planters and Birmingham industrialists, Alabamians have lived for generations in a racist plutocracy where spending for the public good has ranged between shameful and negligent. Recent governors starved essential services, drained rainy-day funds and distracted attention from a spiraling crisis. One day this January, facing a balanced-budget requirement and an immediate $675 million revenue shortfall, Riley told of spending the previous night in bed with his three predecessors’ State of the State speeches. “Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day?” he said. “Until we make…fundamental changes…we’re going to be having this debate ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.”
Riley’s crusade has angered many former supporters and split the state’s Republican Party into old- versus new-economy factions. Leading the opposition is the CEO of SouthTrust, a regional holding company with the largest assets of any Alabama-based bank; the Alabama Forestry Association; and the Alabama Farmers Federation–powerful organizations dominated by large landowners and transnational wood and paper companies. These are the prime beneficiaries of the existing property-tax structure. Trees cover more than 70 percent of Alabama, and forestry is the state’s leading industry, yet taxes on forest land make up less than 2 percent of all property-tax income. On board with the governor are the mainline religious denominations, the powerful teachers association, African-American elected officials, the state’s major newspapers, new technology businesses and manufacturers with desires for a more educated work force, Alabama Power and the antipoverty coalition Alabama Arise. The national Christian Coalition, which knew Riley in Congress, supports the amendment, while the Alabama chapter is staunchly opposed. Although they have the most to gain from Amendment One, many poor and working-class white Alabamians oppose it, harboring antigovernment hostility that remains part of the bitter legacy of George Wallace. They are egged on by local talk-radio clones of Limbaugh and Hannity, and by a media misinformation campaign. African-Americans, a quarter of the electorate, will play a major role; almost all voted against Riley but are now doing double takes.
Going into the final week trailing in the polls, the Riley coalition is warning of budgetary chaos and deep layoffs if Amendment One fails. The “Vote Yes” forces are turning to the state’s most popular celebrity, Ruben Studdard, whose sweet style of soul singing pours Southern comfort on black and white alike, and who will headline “Believe in Alabama” concerts in Birmingham and Mobile. Outside the state, the impending election is raising conservative anxiety, lest a movement demanding that the wealthy pay their fair tax share spreads from this unlikely epicenter. A vicious Wall Street Journal editorial has accused the governor of “aping the worst kind of liberal demagoguery.”
Alabama is breaking apart; when and how it comes together again is anybody’s guess. But by midnight September 9 we should learn how many Alabamians seized the historic moment and how many were homesick for their house of cards.