Getting the message out

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 1, 2003

If the election were held today Alabama voters likely would send the tax and reform package he has championed down to defeat by a margin of anywhere from 2 percent to 20 percent &045;&045; depending on which poll you believe.

But for a few brief moments Thursday morning, Gov. Bob Riley did not concern himself with polls. He had far more important matters to attend to.

Riley was in Selma to address a meeting of Baptist pastors at Selma University. Before returning to Montgomery, he stopped off to tour the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.

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While gazing at the billy club and the cattle prod and the Klan regalia there on display, the governor was suddenly accosted by two young girls who appeared to be around 5 years of age. With the proud father hovering in the background, camera at the ready, the girls tugged at Riley’s pant leg and asked, &uot;Could we have our picture made with you?&uot;

Although they won’t be able to vote in the upcoming Sept. 9 referendum, the governor nevertheless stopped, kneeled down and earnestly replied, &uot;It would make my day to have my picture made with you.&uot;

As the two young girls basked in the governor’s attention, the father dutifully clicked away. It was a homey moment, one that would play well in, say, an upcoming re-election campaign ad.

It is for that generation of Alabama’s children still too young to vote, Riley will tell you, that he has placed his political future on the line by asking those who are old enough to vote to approve an unprecedented $1.2 billion tax increase.

Poll numbers to the contrary notwithstanding, Riley is confident he can do just that &045;&045; provided he can get his message out.

The normally affable, easy-going Riley stiffens visibly when discussing what he terms the &uot;campaign of misinformation&uot; being waged against the plan by groups such as the Tax Accountability Coalition.

The coalition is co-chaired by Charles Bishop, Riley’s former labor commissioner who resigned in protest over the plan.

According to an on-line calculator found at the coalition’s web site, a Selma homeowner whose property is currently valued at $75,000 will see an increase of $64.75 in his property tax under the governor’s plan.

A homeowner whose property is valued at $150,000 will see an increase of $278.50.

William Canary, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, which has endorsed the package, estimates that two-thirds of all Alabamians will pay the same or less in state taxes if it passes.

Ironically, the plan has won far wider acceptance among those in upper-income brackets &045;&045; who will pay more in taxes &045;&045; than among those in lower-income brackets. Sighed the governor, &uot;We’re winning with the people who are going to pay more, and losing with the people who are going to pay less. We’ve got to do a better job of getting the word out.&uot;

Riley pointed out that the plan includes a number of intangible incentives, such as a scholarship program that makes a college education a real possibility for many families that previously might not have been able to afford it.

Riley also dismissed claims that Alabama Power &045;&045; a major campaign contributor &045;&045; and certain other large companies stand to reap a sizeable tax break under the proposed plan. &uot;Absolutely untrue,&uot; he said.

Riley noted that while the plan does grant the utility giant certain tax breaks, its overall effect would be to increase the company’s tax burden. He added that the tax breaks were necessary to lessen the impact of the company’s no longer being able to deduct federal income taxes on its state tax returns &045;&045; one of the plan’s more controversial elements.

Citing Albert Einstein’s maxim that the definition of insanity is to continue doing things the same way and expect different results, Riley said the plan is radically different than previous plans by design.