Eyes on the Prize

by The New Republic | 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. 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

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