The Spectacle Blog

Riley, out of context

By on 2.5.07 | 2:46PM

James, James, James.... Your most recent post on Riley is a case where all the facts are technically right, but out of context. I was there, full time, covering this stuff. I know it backwards and forwards. First, it is not quite fair to make it sound like conservatives were overwhelmingly against the Riley tax plan. I, for one, was personally for it. Then-attorney general Bill Pryor, a real "conservative's conservative," was strongly for it. The Mobile Register editorial board, one of the most conservative editorial boards in the entire country, was enthusiastically for it. The two GOP state senators who arguably were/are (one has retired) the finest members of that whole body, both of them absolutely solid conservatives, Bradley Byrne and Hap Myers, were for it. The national Christian Coalition endorsed it. And so on. There is a good reason for this: There were NUMEROUS extenuating circumstances that made the proposal a good idea, many more than I outlined in my earlier post. For just one more example, the added revenue was DESPERATELY needed for law-and-order purposes that conservatives recognize as the single most essential function of state government. Why? Because the stupid Alabama constitution specifically dedicates something like 80-90 percent of all tax revenues for specific purposes. Over the years, the dedicated revenue streams got out of whack. Without more revenue in one fund, it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL for the Legislature or governor to move monies over from another dedicated fund. The fund for which Riley was trying to raise revenue was absolutely, totally strapped, no matter how well he or anybody managed it. That fund financed, among other things, most law enforcement activities. When the Riley plan failed, the number of state troopers was drastically cut. For months on end, there were only soething like six troopers available to patrol something like 750 miles of state highways in southern Alabama. Meanwhile, the state crime lab was brought to a near standstill. Basic forensic research for rape and even murder cases was running two years or more late. And so on and on and on and on.

Meanwhile, liberal Susan Pace Hamill supported the plan. So what? She didn't write it. Hell, my own editorials were more responsible for the shape of parts of the plan than anything she EVER did.

Meanwhile, the Riley quote about Jesus is WAY out of context. The national media made it sound as if Riley went all around the state trying to sell the plan on biblical grounds. Balderdash. What happened was that the state director of the Christian Coalition came out so harshly and shrilly against the plan that finally the media asked Riley what his response was. Most of the time Riley had tried to avoid getting in a spat with the state Coalition, but this time he responded with the quote above. The response was exactly on point. And he repeated it only a few times, in defense of attacks that themselves quoted (quite bizarrely, by the way) the Bible.

Now, the one place where James is utterly wrong is with his bit about "redistributive taxation." He makes it sound as if Riley was trying to create a sharply progressive tax system. Wrong. The fact is that Alabama's tax system was so out of whack that numerous studies agreed that the percentage of total income paid by low-income earners was actually HIGHER than the percentage paid by high-income workers. It is one thing, a good thing, for conservative to advocate a flat tax. But Alabama's old system was an INVERTED tax. It quite literally took more money (percentage) from the poor than from the rich, with the highest earners paying as little as 4% of their income in state and local taxes of all types while the working poor (not welfare folks; actual workers) paid as much as slightly higher than 10%. All Riley tried to do was to make the system MORE flat, less regressive -- but NOT redistributionist.

Meanwhile, as I noted, if this plan had gone through, Riley all along was planning to do tax cuts (from OTHER revenue sources) later on, once state finances for such things as law enforcement had stabilized. And, to repeat, even his first plan cut taxes on more people than it raised them on. Much of the "net increase" came not from raising taxes on individuals, but from closing special-interest loopholes, basically ending the equivalent of various forms of corporate welfare.

So there. Nothing heterodox about it. Complicated, yes, but not at all unconservative. Ask Bill Pryor. He'll tell you the same. And he, just as I am, is a Kemp-Reagan supply-sider to the marrow. And a budget-cutter, too.

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