Confusion may be part of tax plan

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Last week, I ran into one of my favorite former professors at the University of Alabama. We both attended the Alabama Press Association’s summer convention in Orange Beach. (Please, no sympathy. Someone had to attend.)

Dr. Ed Mullins, who chairs the journalism department at UA, taught me some of the finer points of putting out a good community newspaper during my four years at Alabama. He also taught me a lot about understanding social issues and how they should be presented to readers in towns like this one.

I must admit that understanding Gov. Bob Riley’s tax package is a lot like seeing that first quadratic equation in trigonometry class. One look at the package leaves a befuddled look on your face that can be compared only to looking into the sun and holding your eyes open with your fingers.

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Because of that, I sought out the help of Dr. Mullins. Shortly after that, I sought out the help of Gov. Riley.

Riley didn’t really answer the question. Mullins, as best he could, tried to tell me about why people should support the tax.

Then I raised a couple of personal contentions with Dr. Mullins. To put it bluntly, those two contentions silenced my good professor and left him with the following words: "That’s a pretty cynical view. You may be right, though."

Before I partake on explaining my contentions, let me offer this one piece of confusing opinion: If the tax referendum were held today, and I was forced to put a pencil on a piece of paper, I think I’d support Gov. Riley’s tax package. Without a doubt, I believe Alabama to be the most under-taxed state in the union. I also believe our regressive tax system &045;&045; based largely on a sales tax &045;&045; penalizes the poor. When a guy making $15,000 and a guy making $150,000 have to pay the same sales tax on the same food, and when the state depends on that revenue, something is out of whack.

And that leads me to the two cynical ideas I’ve had about this tax plan. Part of me believes it will pass. Part of me thinks it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Orange Beach.

As you may have read in numerous polls, the people least likely to support Gov. Riley’s plan are blacks. In our area of the state &045;&045; the Black Belt &045;&045; Riley has spent very little time. On Thursday, he attended a meeting in Selma and I’ve heard he has plans on shuttling through Livingston next week, but he hasn’t worked very hard in West Alabama.

To make matters worse &045;&045; at least for his chance of having the plan pass &045;&045; key black elected officials in Alabama haven’t worked very hard to help get Riley’s plan passed. State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, hasn’t beat the bushes very hard. Apparently, he’s managing a phone campaign in support of the plan, but he hasn’t made any tours. Other state leaders like Charles Steele and Rodger Smitherman and Johnny Knight haven’t exactly put their faces on billboards asking the public to support the Riley package.

Much of the reason for their lack of support may go back to the 2003 legislative session when Riley pocket vetoed a bill that would restore voting rights to many convicted felons. Black leaders were furious with Riley’s decision, and they marched in Montgomery against the governor. In my opinion, it’s been hard for black leaders like Sanders to forget about Riley’s pocket veto, and they’ve had little motivation to help the Republican governor.

If blacks continue to reject Riley’s package, and they show up at the polls on Sept. 9, there’s no way the tax plan will pass.

Then again, there may be a really good chance that this package passes &045;&045; and the reason ties directly to cynicism of all voters, both black and white.

Across this state, people have repeatedly said they are confused about Riley’s tax plan, and who can blame them? The numbers and specifics of the plan are so in depth that an accountant is needed to sort through the details.

One thing is quite certain, though: Riley shot the moon on this one. He has asked for double the amount of money we need to shore up the state’s revenue shortfall. He has put everything on the table in a piece of legislation that looks eerily like a constitution.

In my humble opinion, I think Gov. Riley planned for this package to be confusing. He knew there would be adamant supporters of his plan &045;&045; especially the state workers (including teachers). He also knew there would be adamant opposition to the plan.

I believe Riley wants to keep it this way. I don’t believe a majority of Alabamians can understand this plan, and I’m not sure he really wants them to understand it. Instead, a little confusion may be good for Riley and state government.

Here’s the reason: If people don’t understand the tax package, I don’t think they’ll bother to go to the polls. I don’t believe people will want to spend time on Aug. 9 waiting through a polling line if they have no idea what they’re voting for.

If that happens, Riley wins. The people who adamantly support his plan outnumber the people who adamantly oppose it. Because of that, Riley may want to keep the status quo, let the confusion mingle, and watch the tax plan breeze through the polls.

That may be ludicrous, but it’s a thought. Over the next few weeks, we’ll find out what kind of campaign Gov. Riley wages to get his tax package approved in West Alabama. That will answer a whole lot of questions.