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    Riley recruiting help from local leaders on tax package

    06/19/2003
    on 6/19/03.

    Gov. Bob Riley is recruiting local elected officials and community leaders to help him sell his $1.2 billion tax and accountability package to Alabama voters.

    Speaking to an invited audience Wednesday in Mobile, Riley said he needs people to lobby for his package within their communities.

    "If I can convince you of that, then we will win," Riley said. "But the only way I can do this is to have that grass-roots kind of demand for excellence."

    Similar presentations are being planned around the state, including one planned Saturday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Montgomery.

    Pepper Bryars, Riley's deputy press secretary, said local elected officials and opinion leaders are being invited to the meetings because people will look to them for advice on how to vote on Riley's package on Sept. 9.

    He said the events are being organized by the Campaign for Alabama, which helped Riley shape his tax package.

    Bill O'Connor, manager for Campaign for Alabama, said Riley can sell people on the package if he has 30 minutes to explain it to them, but he can't talk to everyone in Alabama before Sept. 9.

    "That's why we need extensive outreach," O'Connor said. "It's going to take more than the governor. It's going to take those who have waited a long time to see this happen."

    Critics of the tax plan, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, say Riley needs to do more cost cutting before pushing the biggest tax increase in state history.

    In Riley's speech at the Mobile Museum of Art, he said getting by with existing state revenue would mean increasing the number of students in each class, kicking Medicaid patients out of nursing homes and cutting their drug benefits.

    "It's amazing the mentality that says, 'That's all the money we have - get by with it,"' Riley said.

    State Finance Director Drayton Nabers added to Riley's description of the financial problems facing the state. Without the new revenue, the prison system would face a 22 percent budget cut that could result in thousands of prisoners being set free, he said.

    Nabers also said Riley's plant would bring more financial integrity to government by making it a crime for department heads to help legislators with "pass-through pork" and by setting strict financial standards for school systems.

    Not everyone in Riley's audience was sold on his plan.

    Reggie Copeland, president of the Mobile City Council, praised Riley for pushing his tax package through the Legislature but said he didn't know enough yet to take a position.

    Mobile County Commissioner Mike Dean, a former Republican state representative, said he liked Riley's accountability measures and could support increasing taxes on cigarettes, labor services and maybe even the proposal to eliminate deductions of federal income tax payments.

    "I'm not going to vote for a property tax increase," he said. "My family and friends own property. I own property.

    "If it weren't an all or nothing thing, I think he would really have a chance at moving the state forward," Dean said.