By Peirce, Neal
Nation's Cities Weekly , Vol. 26, No. 34
Who would Jesus tax? How much of a burden would he lay on the poor? How about the rich and big corporations?
Alabama voters will face that kind of issue on Sept. 9--an explosive proposal to reform America's most regressive tax system, long skewed to protect affluent individuals and the state's "Big Mules"--powerful timber and farm interests.
There's no other state where a family of three or four pays tax on income of as little as $4,600 a year. Last year the lowest-earning one-fifth of Alabama taxpayers paid 10.3 percent of their incomes in state and local levies. But the richest 1 percent paid just 3.7 percent.
Enter Alabama's Republican Gov. Bob Riley, a staunchly conservative former congressman of the Newt Gingrich school who hosts Bible classes at the state Capitol in Montgomery. Confronted with a $675-million budget deficit, Riley revolted. Cutting that deeply, he feared, would trigger a "catastrophic failure of government" in a state already in the national cellar of per-capita spending for education and other basic services.
But Riley went a lot further than suggesting tax hikes to cover the deficit. He recommended a massive "tax and accountability" plan increasing taxes by $1.2 billion over five years, eight times the largest increase ever before enacted in Alabama.
Many of the new funds would be targeted to habitually underfunded and underperforming public schools, accompanied by measures to thin out incompetent teachers and better prepare Alabama residents for a competitive 21st century economy.
But in the process Riley proposed giving the poor a huge break--no income taxes at all below $20,000 in income.
"I've spent a lot of time reading the New Testament," said Riley, "and it has three philosophies: Love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 a year an income tax."
Under Riley's proposal, just the top third of income-earners, plus corporations and large farm and timber operations, would pay more taxes. The state's lowest-in-the-nation property taxes would rise moderately. Alabama would rise from 50th to 44th in total state and local per-capita taxes.
Alabama's mainstream religious denominations are backing Riley. Eight former presidents of the Alabama Baptist State Convention recently declared his plan will end unfair taxation, "bringing relief and justice to the poor who are our neighbors." Many mainstream business groups, including insurance, utility, banking and consumer product firms, back the measure as a way to boost education and sharpen work-force skills.
But a number of independent Christian congregations--not to mention the Alabama chapter of the American Christian Coalition--are against the measure. …