Voters will make the final choice

Published 7:20 pm Wednesday, June 4, 2003

By By BILL CRIST - Publisher
As the Alabama House and Senate enter the final week of a special session to consider Gov. Bob Riley's proposed tax bills, much has been accomplished, but there is a lot of work yet to be done to fix the state's revenue problems.
At the outset of the session, legislators aired complaints about their lack of access to the plan, some parts of which they were sponsoring. In a series of questionable moves, the governor and his staff held small meetings to go over parts of the plan with select legislators, before introducing the whole package to open the special session. That same evening, he appealed to the voters of the state to support his plan and the work that the state's government was doing to dig itself out of the red.
The governor also presented his plan as an all-or-nothing proposal. In numerous interviews, Riley says he wants the voters to make the decision on the plan, which includes a variety of tax increases and cuts, as well as accountability measures.
As was to be expected, special interest groups, on both sides of the issue, have begun their campaigns to support or denounce the plan. They've lobbied legislators to push for changes and the media campaign to sway voters' opinions has been launched.
All of which brings us to the question of whether or not the plan is a good one, and if voters should support it. There are strong and convincing arguments on both sides of the issue. Far too many to outline and argue for or against in this column. If approved, the proposals will impact each of us differently, based on our profession, income and other factors. Some will argue that tax reform and revenue generation are the only way to avoid a crisis in the future. Others argue that by eliminating waste and unneeded programs, we can balance our budget and leave our checkbooks untouched.
In reality, the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.
There is no doubt that there is waste in our state government. Riley and his staff have done a good job identifying some of that waste and bringing it to the public's attention. Throw in the governor's proposal to develop a $75 million program that would fund college scholarships to students who maintain certain grades, and opponents have considerable ammunition to argue against any tax increases.
However, it is no secret that many state agencies are woefully underfunded, and because of that, understaffed. The situation in our state's prison system is a glaring example of a crisis that we've already reached. Our prisons are understaffed and there is not enough room for the inmates our justice system is ordering to be incarcerated. Our highways are patrolled by only a handful of troopers, who are asked to patrol unmanageable territories.
The tax burden on Alabama residents is the lowest in the southeast, which in the past has been made possible in part by a reliance on our oil and gas taxes. Here in Escambia County, the oil and gas severance tax helped fund county and school needs on a large scale. As those natural resources dwindle, the income from those taxes has dropped significantly, putting a strain on the system.
This September, voters will have the opportunity to determine the future of how our state operates. The first step in that process will be for our legislators to approve the governor's plan. The second and more important step will be for that plan to be presented to the public so that we can educate ourselves on what exactly the proposals are and how they will impact us as individuals and the state as a whole. The most important step will be for those educated voters to make the trip to the polls and vote on the direction we want to take our state. By voting on the whole package, we'll determine if we move our state forward into an ever-changing marketplace, or struggle to maintain the status quo.
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