Don’t laugh at the camel

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 24, 2006

The camel is so contorted because it was made by a committee.

This statement seems facetious but it conveys a powerful image of the camel: humped back; long mouth with a snout; legs shooting out at odd angles; an out size neck; and eyes and ears that do not seem to go with the head.

The statement also proffers a powerful portrait of committees creating creatures compromised by adverse forces.

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Often times its that way with laws springing from the Alabama Legislature.

Some years ago, I laughingly repeated the camel statement.

A fellow legislator, I think it was Senator Mac Parson, said, “Don’t laugh at the camel.

It’s the only animal that can get you across the desert.”

The income tax threshold bill making its way through the legislative process is a camel, a creature of compromise carrying us across the political desert.

The income tax threshold issue was dramatically raised during this legislative session by Governor Bob Riley.

Currently, Alabama requires its working poor to start paying taxes at the shameful level of $4,600 per year or $90 per week.

It is by far the worse threshold in the United States.

Representative John Knight and I have been raising this issue for years.

A Governor raising it gave it a greater impetus.

Governor Bob Riley proposed an across the board tax cut for everyone.

I, and others, while applauding him for raising the issue, challenged the following: taking $233 million a year from the Education Trust Fund when Alabama’s per pupil expenditure is a dismal 43rd out of fifty states; and providing a tax cut for millionaires.

The proposal coming from the Governor was an elephant, large and powerful but it could not carry us across the political desert.

I immediately proposed an income tax credit approach which would cost $118 million dollars per year when fully phased in.

It helped the poor and excluded most others.

It was a thoroughbred racehorse but it could not carry us across the desert.

Represet-tative John Knight had previously proposed a plan that would raise taxes on some while lowering them on others resulting in no cost to the Education Trust Fund.

However, it could only be done by constitutional amendment.

It was a strong, steady, plow mule but it could not carry us across the desert.

Others proposed various tax plans but all of us were limited because the income tax rate, including certain deductions, is embedded in the Alabama Constitution and difficult to change.

Because it’s an election year, we are also constrained by the spectre of raising anyone’s taxes, even millionaires who pay the second lowest state/local taxes in the country.

The powerful forces impacting the income tax threshold issue are many: Governor Riley, vigorously pushing an across the board tax cut; Dr. Paul Hubbert of AEA (Alabama Education Association) strongly objecting to any action that reduces the Education Trust Fund; certain Democratic legislators insisting that only those at the very bottom get the tax cut; certain Republican legislators insisting that any tax cut include the highest income groups; members of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus insisting that the threshold be changed “right now”; and others with varying positions.

Each force pulled, pushed and tugged, contorting the legislative camel in the making.

Representative John Knight and I worked closely to bring to the middle powerful but polar opposites: Governor Bob Riley and Dr. Paul Hubbert.

Representative Knight worked more directly with Governor Riley while I worked more directly with Dr. Hubbert.

Representative Knight was heroic in his overall efforts, taking on foes, friends and allies as he insisted, “I will not back down.

We must correct this problem now!”

Eventually, a legislative camel was formed.

The proposal raises the tax threshold to $12,500.

It affects working families up to $100,000 although the impact at such levels is very small.

Finally, it costs the Education Trust Fund about $60 million a year as opposed to the $233 million proposed by Governor Riley or the $118 million proposed by me or various amounts proposed by others.

Last Thursday, Representative Knight steered the camel through the House of Representatives, beating back 12 attempts to amend it and further contort.

The House eventually passed the bill by a vote of 103-0.

As it crossed the half way point in the political desert, it is clearly a creature that can carry us all the way.

I will now try to steer it through the Alabama Senate, completing this journey across burning sands.