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December 15, 2003   Email to Friend 

Alabama Vote Holds Message For Leaders
Peter A. Brown

Alabama voters' rejection of the largest tax hike in state history is the best evidence yet of a growing disconnect throughout the country between the people and their leaders.

Alabamians implicitly opted for deep spending cuts, overwhelmingly vetoing a $1.2 billion tax increase backed by almost everyone who "mattered" in the state--except, of course, the people.

For those who feel compelled to belittle Alabama as a refuge of country bumpkins incapable of understanding their own best interests, restrain your sense of superiority. There is a lesson here for those with such predispositions as to why they and the causes they support often lose elections.

A Democratic legislature approved the plan by Republican Gov. Bob Riley, who warned of draconian cuts, including the bankruptcy of 25 poor schools, cutbacks in child-support-payment enforcement and the closing of 60 senior centers that feed the elderly. Already, the state police is at a third of the recommended force level, and prisons have doubled their intended population.

Although the state Republican Party voted narrowly to oppose the plan, most established political, social and religious groups backed it. These "leaders" claimed that, to make Alabama a better place to live, the state needed to raise levies and overhaul its tax structure to make it "fairer." That, they argued, required greatly increasing spending.

Alabama voters, because a state constitutional amendment requires their consent, got to decide. By a 68-32 percent margin, with almost every demographic group but blacks in opposition, they told the politicians to go to hell.

Maybe it was because the tax increase was almost twice the state's $675 million deficit.

Maybe voters did not share the same vision of Alabama the proposal embraced. But certainly it was because Alabamians--like most Americans--favor spending cuts over tax increases.

Frankly, I'm not sure how I would have voted.

Alabama is among the nation's poorest states and might have benefited from a revenue-neutral tax overhaul.

The overwhelming vote is just more evidence that most Americans look at government deficits as they do their household finances:

They know how hard it is to increase income (work a second job?) and instead see the smart course as cutting back.

Moreover, they instinctively know that, if revenue is increased, their kids--or, in Alabama's case, the state legislature--will just spend it and ask for more.

Spare me the wisecracks about it not being so simple. There is a truth here worth considering. Those in government and politics have a more generous view of what is reasonable when it comes to public programs than do taxpayers.

Those who opposed that tax increase, and others like them throughout the country, are not selfish, greedy, uncaring people.

Rather, they have a less generous definition of reasonable.

And just as important, even if they believe that government should spend more money, they don't necessarily trust their leaders to spend it wisely or, in some cases, honestly.

The Alabama vote was one of those populist revolts that those who backed the tax normally cherish. After all, their mantra is often a variation of "power to the people."

Again, resist the opportunity to say that Alabama is backward, that it doesn't represent anything but itself. Forgo the snobby rhetoric about how this election shows the flaws of giving the great unwashed a voice.

That mind-set might find takers in Cambridge coffee shops or Berkeley bookstores, but it would be more than arrogant.

It would be wrong.

In most of America (there are exceptions, of course, but that is why citizens are fleeing New York and California), raising taxes is far less popular than even admittedly painful government spending cuts.

There is a lesson for the Democratic presidential candidates who think they can get elected by advocating raising billions of dollars in taxes to create a larger government. Not only won't it play in Mobile, where a Democratic White House candidate probably couldn't win under any circumstances, but also in crucial swing states such as Missouri or Michigan.

Those who pay the bills across America, and not just in Alabama, don't want government to spend as much money as do those who work for government, or live off it.

That's because the politicians, public-employee unions, consultants and lobbyists believe they would benefit (politically and monetarily) from the increased spending.

Most Americans do not.

It wasn't just Alabama's rich who wouldn't raid the state treasury. Actually, the plan fared better in upper-income areas. It was the working and middle classes who spurned it by the largest margin.

That's the beauty of America. Voters get the kind of society they want.

Peter Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. This column originally appeared in the Sept. 12, 2003, edition of the Orlando Sentinel. Reprinted with permission.

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