GOP should not work against Riley

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2003

Bob Riley was the overwhelming choice of Republicans in the party’s primary last summer, scoring a landslide victory over the other GOP hopefuls before going on to narrowly be elected governor in November. One would think that tremendous victory in the primary meant Alabama Republicans had a lot of confidence in Riley’s leadership.

Yet on the first major progressive effort of his administration, the heaviest opposition is coming from members of his own party. It is profoundly disappointing to see an unthinking ideology jeopardize a sensible, responsible effort to improve Alabama’s future.

No one is going to mistake Bob Riley for Ted Kennedy. As a member of Congress, Riley had a very conservative voting record. He’s taken a very conservative fiscal approach to government management since becoming governor in January.

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But it didn’t take long for Riley to see that he was governor of a state in serious financial difficulty, with a horrific revenue shortfall looming that simply could not be overcome through thrift and sharp-eyed management alone. He instituted numerous cost-saving efforts, and continues to pursue such efforts, but a shortfall approaching $700 million is not something Alabama can manage away.

The implications of trying to balance the budgets through spending cuts of that magnitude are grim indeed unacceptable. The impact on already underfunded schools, on the poor, on the elderly, on health care, on law enforcement, on all areas of critical government services would be devastating.

Historically, when confronted with crises, Alabama’s leaders have chosen to apply patches to the problem, to choose quick fixes that allow the state to lurch along for another fiscal year at something like the same inadequate level of funding. Riley could have done that.

Instead, however, he saw a chance for Alabama to turn a fiscal problem into a genuine advance, to address the problem in the context of reform, not more patchwork. He proposed an impressive package of tax and accountability measures which bring greater fairness to the state’s tax system while producing new revenue that is free from the earmarking that hamstrings state government by denying the fiscal flexibility needed to direct funds to the areas of greatest need.

The Legislature approved the package, which goes before the voters in a Sept. 9 referendum.

For a degree of foresight rare in Alabama political history, for the first sweeping progressive proposal in Alabama in years, Riley gets from his own party not plaudits and support, but angry opposition. Rather than taking pride in an example of leadership by one of their own, many in the party have turned on Riley as if he were Hillary Clinton in a suit and tie.

A former state party chairman, Roger McConnell of Mobile, is organizing what he says is the first of many public meetings to oppose Riley’s plan. Other ex-chairs have announced their opposition, and several county GOP committees have adopted resolutions against it. A newsletter distributed by a member of the state Republican Executive Committee blasts the "tax plan the liberal wing of the party is attempting to pass.

Riley’s sin, in the eyes of these GOP members, is proposing tax increases. Never mind that Alabama has the lowest taxes in the country. Never mind that the state’s unfair tax system is made significantly less so by this package. Never mind that the package gives Alabama a chance to actually make progress, not just tread water or fall farther behind neighboring states. Never mind that the "less taxes, less government, less regulation" mantra McConnell chanted is essentially what Alabama has had for decades. Is he happy with the results?

Riley deserves better from his party than a reflexive exercise of ideology that ignores reality. If opponents want to find fault with the plan, let them address its specific proposals rather than hiding behind a politically expedient ideological curtain which shields them from the real-world issues the governor has to face head-on.