ALABAMA: NO REFORM, THANKS

Not surprisingly, Governor Bob Riley’s radical tax reform package went down in flames:

Alabama’s conservative Republican governor yesterday met resounding defeat in his highly publicized crusade for a $1.2 billion tax increase — eight times the biggest previous increase in state history — to resolve an unprecedented fiscal crisis, shift the tax burden from poor to rich and improve public schools funded at the nation’s lowest level per child.

With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Alabama voters were rejecting Gov. Bob Riley’s ambitious package 67 percent to 33 percent, consistent with recent polls that had shown it likely to fail by 20 or more percentage points, even among low-income people who stood to receive large tax cuts.

Amusingly, the chief opponents were conservative Republican groups. As Steven Taylor observes, this almost certainly renders Riley a lame duck. Which probably serves him right, since he pulled this package out of nowhere, giving no inkling that he had anything like this is mind when he ran for office.

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that Riley is going to follow through on the promised pain that would come from defeating the referendum:

“The people of Alabama said they want accountability, they want honesty and they want trust,” Riley said. “We’re going to give them that. They said we want you to reduce the size of government before you come back and ask for another dime.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to have to reduce government. We’re going to have to reduce government services,” said Riley, speaking at a post-vote reception Tuesday night at Embassy Suites Hotel.

Just what the state needs: reductions in spending.

Some critics think the measure could have passed with a better campaign:

David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said it’s wrong to conclude from Tuesday’s vote that Alabamians will just flatly not raise taxes.

“It was an uphill battle, but I don’t think this was necessarily out of (Riley’s) reach,” Lanoue said. “There were some tactical decisions that were wrong.”

Lanoue said campaign ads in support of Amendment One should have focused on Riley’s vision for better schools, a better economy and more secure services for senior citizens. Instead, Lanoue said, the themes of the ads were varied. The amendment was portrayed first as a tax cut, then as a battle against special interests.

“Then they decided to emphasize the tax fairness with the slogan, ‘Let’s do the right thing,'” Lanoue said. “That’s a wonderful sentiment but a terrible slogan because it emphasized the costs rather than the benefits. It’s simply another way of asking you to sacrifice your income to benefit somebody else, which is not a good way to win elections.”

While this criticism may be fair, I don’t believe it would have changed the outcome. Lanoue is new to the state and may not fully grasp the recalcitrance of its political culture.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steven says:

    Yup. The problem is far more than one of marketing–there is an issue of entrenched political culture.

  2. Kristopher says:

    I’m hearing a lot of “it was just too big”. I think there was a marketing issue in that the magnitude of the problem was not fully defined before the package was presented. Citizens never grasped how great and different the problems were than what the Governor expected during the campaign.

    I think that’s the only marketing issue that may have helped, but it certainly wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

  3. Steven says:

    Trust me, Kristopher, after living here for 5 years, the other side would’ve said it was “too big” no matter what–especially so long as there were property tax increases involved. Clearly the vast majority of voters in this state don’t believe that the state government needs the revenue. It is part of a long-standing trend.

    It really is a foundational debate between those who see agriculture and 19th-century structures as the best way to govern the state and the economy and those who don’t. While I think that the long-term outlook may be optimistic, the short-term (and maybe medium-term) is still in the hands of the 19th Century-ites.

  4. Kristopher says:

    I think the Governor did not do an effective job of framing the debate in the way you outlined. You are correct the short term outlook is very bleak. My question is whether there is any future for real reform in this state.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Kris,

    I dunno. I first moved to Alabama in 1980. Politicians have been talking about the need for reform, including scrapping the obsolescent constitution, since then at least. Progress: Zero.

  6. Kristopher says:

    James,

    You’re looking at the same history I am. I don’t hold out much hope. This vote was my first personal experience with the length and depth of people’s cynicism in this state. As a former cynic myself, I can sympathize, but among Alabamians it reaches a ridiculous level.

  7. I’ve met David at a conference (actually he was on a panel with me at the 2001 Western); nice guy (complete non-sequitor, I know).

    Of course, you could always see the modified Arkansas/Nevada gambit: the Supreme Court declaring the whole tax system unconstitutional. Since they’ve already painted a giant target on themselves with the RepubliCons by not standing up for Moore, it’s not like they’re hurting their chances for reelection. And at least they are elected, which gives them more legitimacy in the matter than say SCOTUS would have.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Except that, in this case, the tax system is ENSHRINED IN THE CONSTITUTION. Indeed, that’s why there was a referendum–they had to change the Constitution to effect the tax restructuring. The Alabama Constitutition is thicker than most metro phone books. It’s friggin’ huge, because it’s been amended hundreds of time since 1901.

  9. Heh, that wouldn’t (and didn’t) stop the Nevada Supreme Court from applying what some would describe as “novel” reasoning to the problem.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Always a possibility, I guess. It strikes me as unlikely in the case of Alabama, however.

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