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Tax Freedom coming at too high a price

As Americans, there’s many things we should be thankful we live our lives free from: tyranny, censorship, religious oppression, ice hockey, French cinema, etc.

But oh, if only we could say the same about taxes. Or so say many Alabamians, including Alabama Policy Institute president Gary Palmer.

In Palmer’s April 15 opinion column, he writes that “Alabamians can consider themselves fortunate” that our state’s “Tax Freedom Day,” the day the average Alabamian has earned enough to pay all of their taxes for the year, is April 4. Residents in other states have to work several more days or weeks later to reach Tax Freedom Day, he points out, including those poor benighted souls in Connecticut who’ll have to wait until May 3.

So yes, let’s consider ourselves fortunate to live in a state with the 4th-highest infant mortality rate in the nation, as opposed to Connecticut, who ranks 34th. We’re clearly oh-so-lucky to live in a state with the 8th-highest poverty rate, while those unlucky Connecticut residents deal with being the 46th-highest. Sure, Connecticut may have substantially less violent crime and substantially more students graduating from college, but who cares when Alabama lets you save a few bucks a month, right?

It goes on. Connecticut ranks first in per capita income; Alabama’s 40th. The United Health Foundation says Connecticut is the 8th-healthiest state; Alabama ranks 43rd. And an education quality survey by the nationally-recognized Morgan-Quitno Press names Connecticut America’s “second-smartest” state; Alabama, meanwhile, is sitting in the corner with its dunce cap on at 44th.

Why is this? Are the citizens of Connecticut really just better than Alabamians? Are they born smarter? More concerned for their children? Harder working? Lucky?

Uh, no. I refuse to believe that our state produces any fewer intelligent, hard-working, decent people than anywhere else in the country. Maybe Connecticut would say it’s because we’re all dumb and lazy, but we know better.

Perhaps you could make a case that being located in the industrial Northeast prepared Connecticut better for the 20th century than the agricultural Southeast did Alabama. But there’s an awful lot of agriculture out on the plains of Iowa and Nebraska and Kansas, too, and those states all rank better than Alabama as well.

So what’s the difference? The most likely answer is, simply, that Connecticut has a better state government. But how did it get better?

Sure, maybe Connecticut’s government has had less bickering, less corruption, and less wasteful spending than Alabama. But has Alabama’s government had that much more, to so consistently rank so far behind in comparing quality of life?

No. Connecticut’s government does more for its people because it has more to spend. It’s simple: the elderly are healthier when more of them receive Medicaid. Children learn better when there’s fewer of them in the classroom. Fewer infants die when their mother can afford health care.

But for Palmer and so many other Alabamians, our neighbors leading better and longer lives isn’t worth it if it means higher taxes. You might wonder what Palmer and tax-hating Alabamians, who would very likely describe themselves as Christians, are making of verses like “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

But Palmer’s column does offer an explanation of a sort: he might support certain tax raises, he seems to subtly say, if the state’s finances had greater accountability. In theory, this is fine; using taxpayer money to, say, pay Martin Scorsese to film the 2005 Such-and-Such High Video Yearbook just isn’t acceptable.

But where’s the line that says, “There, that’s enough accountability, now we can raise taxes”? No state government is ever, ever going to be totally efficient. Connecticut’s had their share of clunkers, too. If we wait to raise taxes until the state is perfectly accountable, taxes will never be raised, and the state will have a harder and harder time moving forward.

Palmer says that “this accountability measure can be implemented by making performance-based budgeting part of state law,” but makes no mention of how that performance will be judged, who will do the judging, or how to gauge the performance of brand-new programs. He takes a shot at Governor Riley’s defeated tax reform package, but fails to mention that increased accountability (which costs money and might require higher taxes itself) was a major part of that proposal. The bottom line is that while accountability is certainly something to strive for, and should arrive hand-in-hand with any major tax increases, for Palmer and others it seems to be little more than a one-word excuse to keep taxes down. And when infants are dying and children aren’t learning, excuses aren’t good enough.

Palmer’s dead-on when he says that we’re fortunate to live in Alabama. But it’s because of the friendliness of our people, not the friendliness of our tax system. If a poorer, unhealthier state is what Alabama pays in exchange for Tax Freedom, it’s costing us way too much.

Jerry Hinnen is a staff writer for the Demopolis Times. He can be reached at jerry.hinnen@demopolistimes.com or by calling (334) 289-4017.