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ALABAMA: Read our lips ... no new taxes

National

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

In a resounding defeat that will likely shake statehouses across the country, Alabamians on Sept. 9 voted down a huge tax increase by a 2-to-1 margin.

Bob Riley, Alabama's conservative Republican governor, proposed the increase after inheriting a $675 million budget deficit from his predecessor in Montgomery. Without the 20 percent tax hike-the largest in the nation-he warned that schools and public services would suffer drastic cuts. He even played the religion card, telling devout Alabamians it was their biblical duty to care for "the least among us."

He didn't find many converts, however. Tax-hike opponents, including the state Republican Party, said lawmakers needed to stop wasting the voters' money before being entrusted with more. Just 90 minutes after the polls closed, Gov. Riley went on TV to announce he'd gotten the message: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have heard what the people of Alabama have said, and they said very clearly tonight, 'We do want you to be good stewards, but we want a smaller government until you prove to us that you are stewards of our money.'"

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Anti-tax groups hope other politicians will heed the lessons of Alabama. "It's an irrefutable message," exulted Dick Armey, the former congressman whose organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, campaigned actively against the increase. With state budget crises looming all across the map, groups like CSE are pressing legislatures to opt for spending cuts rather than tax increases.

Gov. Riley promised those cuts would start immediately. Although lawmakers could raise some taxes without voter approval, they are unlikely to do so following a resounding defeat at the polls. Instead, Mr. Riley said he would consider such drastic steps as releasing 5,000 inmates from state prisons, ending nursing-home care for hundreds of elderly citizens, and curtailing prescription medicines for the mentally ill. The state superintendent of education warned of a four-day class schedule and pink slips for some 4,000 teachers.

Such austerity measures are bound to be painful, even for the voters who insisted on them. For Mr. Riley and the Alabama GOP, the trick now is to tighten the state's budget belt-without eventually hanging from it.

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