Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Antitax groups said yesterday there are lessons for the rest of the nation in Tuesday’s resounding defeat by Alabama voters of a $1.2 billion annual tax increase.

Voters rejected the tax increase 68-32 in what officials said was heavy turnout for a special election, 53 percent.

The tax plan, which would have increased taxes on middle- and upper-income earners while benefiting lower-income earners, was promoted by Republican Gov. Bob Riley and supported by a diverse group including the state’s education establishment and many Democratic officials. But many Republican officials either remained neutral or opposed the plan.

The main lesson from the defeat, observers said, was that Alabama voters simply didn’t trust the government to spend the money properly. And much of their ire was directed at Mr. Riley, who told residents they had a moral obligation to pay for state expenses like education and the state’s Medicaid program.

“Lesson one is the tax issue cuts badly for any politician, but especially for Republican chief executives who think they can get away with it by couching it in moral or practical language. It just doesn’t work that way,” said Pete Sepp, vice president for communications at the National Taxpayers Union.

Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, a nonpartisan organization that promotes tax reforms, said the efforts the national taxpayer advocacy groups put into defeating the tax increase are probably a preview of what will happen if other states try something similar.

“The extent to which they came down here and did that is kind of serving notice to everywhere else,” Mr. Williams said.

The governor is expected to call a special legislative session next week to address the state’s funding shortfall.

But those who pushed the tax said that residents apparently are saying they will accept deep spending cuts instead. The tax increase’s backers have warned of cuts of up to 18 percent in noneducation spending and of about 5 percent in education spending.

State schools Superintendent Ed Richardson that could mean cuts in everything from textbooks to football for Alabama schools.

“We’re looking at possibly a four-day school week and at charging fees for everything that’s not required for graduation,” Mr. Richardson said, according to the Associated Press.

But Dick Armey, Texas Republican and former majority leader in the U.S. House, said voters just didn’t believe the predictions.

“These people selling this package were painting some pretty nightmarish scenarios, and a lot of people were saying, in effect, ‘Don’t give me that. It’s not as bad as you say it is,’” said Mr. Armey, now co-chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy, who campaigned against the tax increase. “There’s a general attitude: ‘You won’t have to do as much cutting as you say you will, but if that’s the case, we’ll take the cutting rather than the tax increases.’”

Taxpayer advocates said the Alabama vote is the latest in a recent series of antitax votes.

In August 2002, Missouri voters rejected a sales- and gas-tax increase by nearly a 3-to-1 vote, and in November voters in Northern Virginia turned back a sales-tax increase that state leaders had said would go to pay for transportation projects.

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