SEPTEMBER 8, 2003
The park service no longer counts crowds on the National Mall. And,
for the organizers of the fortieth anniversary of the March on
Washington, that's a good thing, because last week's turnout was
miserable. In 1983, the march's twentieth anniversary drew 250,000.
The thirtieth garnered 75,000. And this year? Twenty thousand, at
best.Why the diminishing interest? Perhaps because, in arguably the most
important civil rights battle of the year, the civil rights groups
are awol. That battle, contrary to what one might assume from the
speakers at the march, isn't being fought in Iraq; it's being
fought in Alabama. And it's not being led by Kweisi Mfume or Jesse
Jackson; it's being led by a conservative Republican named Bob
Riley is that rarest of creatures: A genuinely inspiring politician.
As a member of the House of Representatives, his hard-right
instincts won him annual commendations from Grover Norquist's
fanatically anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform. But, when he
took over this year as Alabama governor, he encountered three
ideologically discomforting truths about his state's tax system.
First, it wasn't producing enough revenue to balance the budget, as
the state constitution required. Second, it wasn't producing enough
revenue to guarantee even a minimally adequate education for
Alabama's children. Third, it fell largely on the poor.
In other words, Alabama has the kind of tax system Norquist wants
for the United States. The state constitution, rewritten in 1901 at
the behest of timber and cotton interests, largely exempts
Alabama's extractive industries from property taxes. As a result,
while timber companies own 71 percent of the state's land, they pay
less than 2 percent of its property taxes. So how does Alabama make
up for this lack of revenue? Partly, it doesn't: Its schools are
the worst funded in the country, and last year the state tied for
last in national writing tests. Partly, it taxes the poor. In most
states, state income taxes kick in at around $18,000. In Alabama,
they kick in at a breathtaking $4, 600--or about one-fourth of the
poverty line for a family of four. The state collects the majority
of its revenue through highly regressive sales taxes; in some
counties, the tax on groceries reaches 11 percent. A study by the
liberal Citizens for Tax Justice found that, while the poorest
one-fifth of Alabamians pay more than 10 percent of their income in
taxes, the wealthiest 1 percent pay less than 4 percent.
Riley is trying to change this. He wants to exempt families below
the poverty line from state income taxes while boosting property
and state income taxes for the wealthy. As a result, the poorest
two-thirds of Alabamians would see their taxes hold steady or go
down. The wealthiest one-third would pay more, although still less
than in most states. Riley's plan would bring in enough new revenue
to balance the budget. It would also fund an intensive K-6 reading
initiative, a salary boost for teachers willing to work in the worst
schools, and college scholarships for high school seniors with good
grades and test scores. In return for the new money, Riley has
convinced Alabama's teachers' unions to scrap tenure for all new
hires, giving principals far more authority to fire bad teachers.
As Buddy Bell, minister at Landmark Church of Christ in Montgomery,
recently told the Montgomery Advertiser, "This is the most
courageous thing I have ever seen a governor do."
There's just one problem: To get his plan passed, Riley has to amend
the Alabama constitution, which requires a statewide vote, set for
September 9. And recent polls suggest the vote will be no. One
reason is that Alabamians just viscerally loathe taxes. According
to the Alabama Association of School Boards, since 1988 voters in
various counties have rejected 57 of the 91 proposed property tax
increases for schools. Another reason is that the plan's opponents,
funded largely by--surprise!--big timber and agricultural interests,
have raised three times as much as its supporters. National GOP
groups have joined in as well. Norquist recently told The
Washington Post he would make Riley "the poster child for
Republicans who go bad. I want every conservative Republican
elected official in the United States to watch Bob Riley lose and
learn from it. "
But there's one more reason the plan is behind in the polls:
National civil rights groups have barely lifted a finger for it.
Riley's plan would arguably do more for black and poor Alabamians
than anything since the civil rights era. And yet, as far as I can
tell, it received not a single mention at last week's anniversary
March on Washington. You won't find any reference to it on the
naacp's website. In fact, the only prominent African American who
has publically announced a trip to Alabama to support the
initiative is "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard.
Capitalizing on that indifference, Norquist and company have turned
many black Alabamians against Riley's plan. An ad on black radio
features a man warning, "Our property taxes could go up as much as
fo' hundred percent" (400 percent sounds like a lot, but Alabama's
property taxes are so low that the average homeowner would pay only
$94 more per year, a sum that Riley's plan more than counteracts
with state income tax cuts and increased federal income tax
deductions). Some have suggested that Alabama's black leaders are
sitting on their hands because Riley vetoed a bill to restore
voting rights to ex- felons. A recent Birmingham News poll found
black voters split on the plan and voters earning less than $30,000
strongly against it.
A national effort by civil rights organizations could change that.
The naacp and the Urban League, not to mention the Democratic
Party, should be sending college students to Montgomery and
Birmingham by the busloads. Al Sharpton, Jackson, and Mfume should
be taking up residence in the state. Alabama GOP Chairman Marty
Connors recently told The Washington Post that, "If this can pass
in Alabama, it could be a precedent to attempt it elsewhere." And
he's absolutely right. Riley, who couches his reforms in biblical
language about the obligation to "take care of the least among us,"
is one of the few white politicians in recent history to try to use
religion on behalf of social justice. He's won significant white
evangelical backing, and, if his plan passes, it could upend
conventional wisdom about what is politically, and morally,
possible in the South. A conservative white Republican has thrown
down the gauntlet to the supposed custodians of Dr. King's dream:
Speak now or forever hold your peace.
By Peter Beinart