There is an amazing political story going on in the Heart of Dixie. No, I'm not talking about the grandstanding chief justice who rode the Ten Commandments to state's high court. The recently elected Republican Governor, a former Gingrich revolution congressman who ran on a no-tax pledge, is pushing a plan for a record $1.2 dollar tax increase which would be far more progressive than the current system. Democrats support him. Republicans are fighting him tooth and nail. There is a $675 million dollar shortfall. So why a $1.2 billion increase?
Riley said his alternatives were to cut $675 million in spending, triggering a "catastrophic failure of government," or to raise taxes by that amount -- four times the largest previous increase. "The largest tax increase in state history just to maintain the status quo?" he asked. "I don't believe so. I believe you have to offer the people of Alabama a chance for a better future." The extra $600 million will go into an Alabama Excellence Initiative fund for statewide math, reading and science initiatives and merit college scholarships.
So is Riley simply not willing to make the tough decisions on cuts? No, he has already cut $230 million in spending.
What do the Republicans in the state think about their choice for governor?
"Alabama needs to raise some revenue; there's no question about that," said the GOP's Connors. "But this is not a tax increase any longer. This is a massive redistribution of wealth. We are the Republican Party -- of Alabama! If a Democrat had proposed this, we would be burning down cities."
And what about the GOP that selectively believes in "States Rights," after riding that concept into power in the South?
Now, the battle is taking on national dimensions, with conservative Republican groups in Washington mobilizing to defeat Riley's plan. "If this can pass in Alabama, it could be a precedent to attempt it elsewhere, and muddy the anti-tax message," Connors said. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who gave Riley as congressman his group's Friend of the Taxpayer Award every year from 1997 through 2002, vowed to make Riley "the poster child for Republicans who go bad. I want every conservative Republican elected official in the United States to watch Bob Riley lose and learn from it."
What does Riley say of his former supporters who are fighting him?
"We have a philosophical difference of opinion," Riley said of these one-time supporters. "I believe in a fair tax code. They don't. I believe we have to make investments in education that keep us from being tied for dead last. They don't. They have had special treatment at least for all of my adult life. And even after this modest increase, they'll still be paying less than in any of our surrounding sister states."
The toughest sale? Those who will benefit the most. They just can't believe anything coming out of Montgomery can truly have their best interest at heart.
Somewhat paradoxically, polls show the strongest opposition is among black voters, who make up about a fourth of the electorate, and people with incomes under $30,000 -- the very Alabamians who would receive the largest tax cuts. Riley and his emissaries are campaigning hard among black voters, who opposed him overwhelmingly in November. He is encountering distrust embedded in Alabama history.
Finally, though, the GOP focuses on Black voters-- by lying to them.
Riley's opponents also have targeted black voters, airing a radio ad on stations with mostly black audiences featuring a man with poor diction warning, "Our property taxes could go up as much as fo' hundred percent," and blaming "Montgomery insiders who have been ignorin' us for years." The ad was paid for by a political action committee whose top contributors are the state's largest bank, a leading insurance company, two timber and paper companies and county farmers federations -- all of which supported Riley last November.
In another interesting twist, a Republican is finally using religion as a rationale to actually help people.
Riley's appeal to Christian morality -- a standard theme in Alabama campaigns -- has taken some unusual bounces. "What would God have Alabama Baptists do as individuals and what would He have us do with the influence entrusted to us in this state?" wrote Bob Terry, editor of the Alabama Baptist, the newspaper of the Alabama Baptist Convention. Terry called for a yes vote: "The Bible is clear that 'to whom much is given, much is required.' "
But the view we are more familiar with has not gone away.
But the Christian Coalition of Alabama, which opposes all tax increases, staked out the other side. "We applaud tax relief for the poor. You'll find most Alabamians have got a charitable heart; they want to do that," said the group's president, John Giles. "They just don't want it coming out of their pocket."
A charitable heart doesn't give anything without a charitable wallet to go with it, my friend! Remember the parable about the poor lady who still gave? Remember the analogy of the camel trying to get through the eye of the needle? The Christian Coalition embraces the, "What would Jesus not do?" framework. To paraphrase Giles: "I don't mind someone helping them poor sons-a-bitches out, but it damn sure ain't gonna be me! That ain't the kind of Christianity we believe in."
As Andy Griffith used to say while shaking his head disapprovingly, "Piteeful, Piteeful."