By Smietana, Bob
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 39, No. 35
First there was "What Would Jesus Do?" Then there was "What Would Jesus Drive?"
Now Christians in Alabama are asking, "What (or Whom) Would Jesus Tax?"
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a conservative Republican and Southern Baptist, has proposed a $1.2 billion tax package that raises taxes on the wealthiest residents and businesses and cuts taxes on poor families. Riley argues that he has a moral obligation to do so, said David Azbell, the governor's press secretary.
"Gov. Riley has said many times that there are three things he has found in reading the New Testament," Azbell said. "We are to love God, love our neighbor and take care of the poorest of the poor."
Azbell said the tax plan helps make "an immoral tax system moral." He notes that in Alabama, a family of four that makes as little as $4,600 a year still has to pay income taxes. In neighboring Mississippi, that figure is $19,000. "I just don't think you can find a justification in the New Testament for taxing a family that makes $4,600 a year," he said.
Riley's plan, which fills a $675 million shortfall in Alabama's budget and provides new money for education and other state services, passed the state legislature in June. It now faces a Sept. 9 referendum. Azbell said that Alabama's churches will play a key role in getting the tax package approved.
In recent years, Alabama's Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists have all passed resolutions calling for tax reform, and the idea has been supported by Catholic and Jewish leaders.
One of the leading advocates for tax reform is University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill. Hamin's interest in the issue was sparked by a newspaper article she read during a sabbatical at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., which labeled Alabama's income tax as "the least fair" in the country.
Before that time, said Hamill, a former IRS attorney who teaches tax and business law, she was just "too busy" to notice the inequities in Alabama's tax system.
"There were lots of little signs that should have tipped me off that something was seriously wrong here," she said. Like the sales tax on groceries that was "abysmally high," she said, while "the property tax on my house was ridiculously low, and the school that my kids attend was constantly begging for donations to meet things that ought to be part of the regular budget."
That combination, said Hamill, means that Alabama's poorest residents pay almost 11 percent of their income in state taxes while the richest pay less than 4 percent. …