Almost every state faces a severe financial crunch, with taxes and spending cuts dominating the news. In September, Alabama had a chance to vote on a real solution to its budget crisis. The opportunity was lost, shot down by corporate money and right-wing ideology.

Alabama faced a $675 million shortfall for the budget year that began Oct. 1, even after cutting $275 million last year. Other states have balanced their budgets with accounting gimmicks, raiding trust funds, increased tobacco taxes, cutting vital services, and stiffing cities and local governments. Alabama could have been different.

Republican Bob Riley was elected governor after serving in the U.S. Congress where he won the title of “most conservative member.” He saw a state that has starved public services, is near the bottom in education, and has the nation’s second-worse infant mortality rate. The working class pays 9-11 percent of their income in taxes while the rich pay only 4 percent, making Alabama one of the 10 worst states for tax unfairness.

Riley, unlike his former supporters in the Christian Coalition, apparently took seriously the biblical injunction to help the poor. He proposed and passed an ambitious $1.2 billion plan to close the budget gap and transform Alabama’s education system from one of the country’s worst to one of its best. The tax burden would be shifted from lower- and middle-income families to wealthy households and big out-of-state corporate landowners, so that two-thirds of Alabamans would pay the same or less in taxes. In addition, it would make the state’s revenue stream more stable for the future.

The plan was opposed by bankers, by the timber interests that own much of Alabama’s land, by the Republican Party, the Alabama Christian Coalition, and national anti-tax groups. The Republican governor’s plan was supported by the Democratic Party, African American state legislators, unions, and some local business groups.

In a statewide referendum Sept. 9, Alabama voters rejected the plan by a 2-1 margin. Polls showed opposition spread across all income levels – even low-income voters, who would have benefited most, were overwhelmingly against it. The result of the vote has been deep cuts, including education and health care. It is likely that working-class families, whose taxes would have been cut under the Riley plan, will see tax increases instead.

How could such a big majority in Alabama be persuaded to vote against their own interests?

Some reasons were particular to Alabama. Working-class voters were suspicious of a plan coming from the Republican Riley, who had never before taken progressive positions. These suspicions grew, especially amongst African Americans, when Riley refused to sign a bill making it easier for former convicts to regain voting rights. But other reasons for the defeat in Alabama reflect nationwide trends.

Tax expert David Brunori summarizes: “Large absentee landowners who would see their tax burdens rise have funded a vicious and deceitful campaign against the governor. Those rich folks, who don’t even live in Alabama, have teamed up with right-wing, antigovernment fanatics (who also don’t live in Alabama) to distort the debate and smear the governor.”

These “antigovernment fanatics” have a well-funded, nationwide network whose propaganda dominates the corporate media. Foremost among these fanatics is Grover Norquist, described as “an insider with White House pull matched by few others, the indispensable man” for the Bush policy of tax cuts for the rich. In Alabama, Norquist “helped deliver a 2-1 popular majority against the tax hike, but his real goal was to turn the Alabama vote into a national object lesson for other politicians.” (John Maggs in the National Journal.)

Unfortunately, their strategy is working. So far, voters have been asked, “Would you rather raise taxes or cut government?” The answer in Alabama was, “Cut government.”

We have to find a way of asking different questions. Instead of “how much taxes,” the questions should be: “Who pays taxes?” – “Should the richest people continue to pay only one-third to one-half the tax rate paid by low- and middle-income working people?” – “Should giant multinational corporations continue to get away with paying less each year in state and local taxes, even while receiving corporate welfare?”

The answers to those questions will reveal that we can afford decent education, health care, and programs for children and seniors, even while we cut workers’ taxes. And at local, state, and national levels, these questions can help shift the entire political debate and help defeat George Bush and his right-wing, anti-people policies in 2004.

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Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.