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Alabama's new governor is trying to persuade voters to approve the biggest tax increase in state history by telling them it is their Christian duty. And for a state in the Bible Belt, that might seem like a winning strategy.
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Instead, Republican Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2 billion tax package is alienating even the Christian Coalition and other supporters, who see Riley as a Judas. Riley had consistently opposed new taxes while in Congress.
Riley says the tax increase is needed to erase Alabama's biggest deficit since the Depression and improve education. The plan also seeks to help the poor by raising the income level at which people have to begin paying state taxes.
Alabama's threshold for paying state taxes is the lowest in the nation at just $4,600 for a family of four and has been remain unchanged since 1982.
Riley, a Southern Baptist, says Alabama has taxed its poorest too harshly for too long.
"According to our Christian ethics, we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor," he said. "It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax."
Two of the governor's cabinet members resigned after Riley made the proposal. One of them, Labor Commissioner Charles Bishop, now leads opposition to the tax plan, saying Alabama voters thought they were getting a tax-cutting conservative who would eliminate waste, but instead got the opposite.
Bishop said supporters of Riley's plan also have been deceptive in saying it would help working-class Alabamians, when it actually includes a range of smaller tax increases, on such things as cigarettes and services, that would hit the poor harder than the wealthy.
"Working people, once they catch you lying, are never going to support you again," he said.
Voters will decide in a referendum Sept. 9. In a statewide poll of 500 registered voters last week, 49 percent said they would vote against Riley's plan, 39 percent for it and 12 percent were undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The poll by The Birmingham News and three TV stations also found that voters in households with an annual income of less than $30,000 oppose the plan by about 2-to-1 _ even though it is designed to cut their taxes.
"People who are getting a tax cut don't believe it," Riley said.
The package would boost the income tax threshold for a family of four to $17,000 next year. It also would offer property tax breaks to small family farms of less than 200 acres _ a category that covers most of Alabama's farms _ while mandating big increases for the 500 or so farms and timber tracts with more than 2,000 acres each.
The plan is opposed by agriculture and timber groups that supported Riley's campaign, the state Republican party chairman and party steering committee, and the conservative Christian Coalition.
"To give tax relief to the less fortunate is something we can all agree upon, but all families deserve tax relief," said the coalition's state president, John Giles.
Alabama's biggest banker, SouthTrust Bank chief executive Wallace Malone, says Riley's package is too much for Alabama as its economy struggles to recover.
"The truth is that the governor's net tax package very probably will result in the loss of 30,000 jobs or more as business and people scramble to pay these taxes," he said.
The state is facing a $675 million deficit, and without new revenue, Riley says, it will have to release prisoners, cut medicine for the mentally ill and end Medicaid payments for many nursing home residents.
The plan adds money for new programs, including extending the school year to the national average, expanding reading programs and providing college scholarships for "B" students. It also includes accountability measures, such as streamlining the process for firing incompetent teachers.
But while Riley has lost some of his supporters, he has gained allies from the people who once opposed him, including the Alabama Education Association, a powerful teachers group that fought him last year. He also has the support of the Democratic party chairman.
"It's a critical moment in our state's history when we need to take this moment to move ahead," said Redding Pitt.