James Antle’s column on Huckabee was terrific, but I take friendly issue with this one sentence: This can be detected in the fiscal heterodoxies of evangelical-tinged Republicans like Huckabee and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley…
I argue, strongly, that Riley has a superb record as a fiscal conservative. But it’s one of those things where the national media, especially conservatives, utterly misunderstood what was going on. The only knock on Riley is that he tried to push a tax reform plan that overall would have raised about a billion dollars more for state government. What is not understood is that the plan would have CUT taxes for well over 50% of Alabamians. And that it would have only marginally raised taxes on the others, in order to make redress for a complicated imbalance that made Alabama’s taxes not merely regressive by liberals’ cockeyed measurements, but by conservative ones. AND that it would still have left Alabama’s taxes among the four lowest in the entire country. AND that it was all part of a two-part plan to chip away at the power of the utterly horrific Alabama Education Association, which owns the state Senate lock, stock and barrel, by creating a pot of money NOT under the AEA’s effective control. (Alabama’s state constitution is bizarre, and its effect is to tie up the vast bulk of all state tax monies in funds restricted so strongly that special interest groups like the AEA can, if they once get control of the funds, find ways to never let go. Again, it’s complicated.)
Besides, the Riley tax reform plan was voted down, and Riley moved on.
Phase two of the plan was to come back, just as Reagan did after raising taxes in his first year as California governor, and cut taxes (in this case, either a cut in the astronomically high Alabama state-and-local sales tax, or perhaps in the form of a Reaganesque tax “rebate”) from funds the AEA otherwise would control.
At the exact same time Riley was doing that, he was successfully cutting some half a billion dollars from an already tight budget, and was eliminating special-interest pork, and was streamlining government operations while improving quality and accountability, and was actually improving education through special programs conservatives would love. FINALLY, Riley did turn around in his fourth year anyway and cut a whole host of low-income workers completely off the state income-tax rolls (which also had the effect of providing a small income-tax cut for EVERYbody in the state), plus he instituted a back-to-school sales-tax holiday.
Result of all that plus other reforms and high energy and high integrity: A true Alabama Miracle. Tremendous job growth, including in some of the most impoverished areas not just of the state but of the country. An unemployment rate barely above 3%. A scandal-free administration (on the heels of an administration in which several people, including former Gov. Siegelman, were convicted of various misdeeds). Tremendous improvement in reading scores, and a beginning of similar improvements in math. And a re-election with 59% of the vote in an otherwise bad GOP year. The GOP picked up two seats in the state Senate (albeit from GOP-allied Dems), but the national Democratic tide took down the incumbent state Supreme Court Chief Justice and a strong candidate for Lieutenant Governor. In other words, Riley far outpaced the generic statewide GOP vote.
In short, Riley governed as a conservative across the board, including fiscally, and it’s time the national conservative media began recognizing that fact.