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<p>Gov. Bob Riley's tax and reform package got a badly needed boost today from an unlikely source: the Christian Coalition of America.
Coalition President Roberta Combs endorsed the $1.2 billion plan during a news conference this morning at Signature Aviation next to Huntsville International Airport. Her Huntsville stop was one of four planned in Alabama's major cities. </p>
<p>"We are urging our members and all people of faith in Alabama to support (Riley's) bold and courageous initiative,'' Combs said. She said she hopes Alabama voters "will seize this transforming moment'' and approve the package in a Sept. 9 referendum.
The proposal furthers two causes central to the coalition's philosophy, Combs said: helping the poor by making taxes more fair and preserving programs designed to help families. But the Christian Coalition has traditionally opposed higher taxes. Indeed, John Giles, president of the group's state chapter, has been one of the chief spokesmen against the Riley plan.
Combs promised that the national group will work to pass the measure, although she said the group has not decided what form that will take. </p>
<p>Combs' surprise visit - it wasn't announced until late Tuesday - may re-energize efforts by Riley and the plan's supporters to rally public support. Recent polls indicate that barely a third of those likely to vote Sept. 9 support the plan.
Riley spokesman David Azbell said this morning the administration did not lobby for the Christian Coalition's endorsement. </p>
<p>Asked what it means that the state chapter is one of the plan's most vocal opponents, Azbell said, "I think it shows that John Giles speaks for John Giles and not for the Christian Coalition." </p>
<p>Giles was caught off-guard by Combs' announcement this morning. Asked about her endorsement, he paused then said, "I did not know that." A spokesman for the state chapter said late this morning the group planned to respond this afternoon.</p>
<p>But Giles said it is unusual for the national group to sound off on an issue such as Riley's plan. Giles said he spoke with Combs Tuesday and that she mentioned nothing about coming to Alabama or endorsing Riley's proposals.
Riley announced his plan to a statewide audience May 19. A day later, the Christian Coalition of Alabama denounced the plan, releasing a resolution from the group's board of directors. </p>
<p>"The Christian Coalition of Alabama opposes raising taxes," the statement began. "The Christian Coalition is unable to support any new permanent tax proposals to cure historical systemic failures and poor public policy of reckless and unmerited spending habits," it concluded. </p>
<p>Giles has been part of several outspoken groups campaigning against the plan, including the Tax Accountability Coalition and the Alabama Farmers Federation.
Combs attempted to downplay the apparent schism, calling it merely a difference of opinion. "We will address that at a later time'' after the referendum, she said this morning.
Combs said the initiative to come to Alabama came from her Washington-based organization, not from Riley or other supporters of the tax proposal in Alabama. Coalition members in the state began calling her group asking about its position, she said. After researching the voluminous plan, which includes 19 bills, Combs said she decided to endorse it. </p>
<p>Bill O'Connor, head of a coalition of Alabama businesses formed to lobby for Riley's plan, traveled with Combs today and introduced her at the Huntsville stop. He said before she spoke that her visit shows how much national attention the fight for Riley's plan has garnered. </p>
<p>Citizens for a Sound Economy, headed by a former Riley congressional colleague, former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, opposes the plan. Armey, the House's majority leader when he retired last year, is scheduled to speak in Alabama against Riley's plan this month.
The national Christian Coalition's endorsement could also signal a shift in the position of national conservative groups. </p>
<p>"It tends to give some credibility to conservative Christianity," Dr. Wayne Flynt, a historian and professor at Auburn University, said today.
Flynt, a proponent of the Riley plan, said that based on conversations he's had with Christians in the state, many support the plan, even in very conservative churches. "I don't understand Giles' position on this," he said. </p>
<p>Flynt said the state Christian Coalition's opposition to the lottery, and now Riley's tax plan, without mention of alternatives, undermines the group's credibility. "It sounds like all (Giles) does is support Alfa," Flynt said, referring to the Farmers Federation, which vigorously opposes local and state property tax increases. Alfa has contributed the bulk of the money to opposition groups so far.
Combs took the helm of the Christian Coalition of America after founder Pat Robertson retired in December 2001. She has in recent months tried to revive the group to the status of its heyday during the 1990s.