A respected friend called the other day to offer his perspective that I’ve been too harsh on Gov. Kay Ivey, and to explain why he thinks she is uniquely qualified to continue running Alabama for the next four years.
I don’t take this individual’s opinions lightly, so maybe I should give Gov. Ivey more benefit of the doubt and not just look at her as a 30-plus-year fixture on Goat Hill.
One issue, I explained to my friend, in my perception of the governor is she has given us “enemies of the people” in the media little opportunity to actually ask her questions about substantive issues, and so far her commercials have done little more than portray her as a folksy character who may or may not be handy with a pistol and can spot a Rocky Mountain oyster from across the room.
To be fair, though, the actual issues in our state are almost always obfuscated during election time with posturing over who’s the “real” conservative and imaginary battles over the Second Amendment and abortion. This year we also have people vowing to fight all of the nonexistent sanctuary cities in Alabama as well.
The governor’s race is not alone in feeding primarily upon the political equivalent of Totino’s Pizza Rolls. The current runoff battle between Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh and Will Ainsworth for the Republican lieutenant governor’s spot in the general election has mostly turned into a mudslinging match and argument over which candidate is the true conservative and who may or may not have dissed Donald Trump.
That all makes for great political theater, but to quote the late, great Clara Peller, “Where’s the beef?” We need a little more wonkiness in our statewide races.
This is precisely the reason I think it’s important for Ivey and Democratic challenger Tommy Maddox to have at least a couple of debates. It’s why sitting down with reporters is important — because there is so much more to being governor or lieutenant governor than party politics.
Ivey has painted kind of a feel-good campaign, the underlying tone of which is that she’s righted the ship, thrown the mutineers into shark-infested waters and everyone is now rowing in the proper direction. But we have some hard rowing to do. Let’s flip through some of the assemblages of state rankings and look at where Alabama stands right now.
U.S. News & World Report puts together a rather exhaustive ranking of the 50 states that takes in thousands of pieces of information to form its results. Its 2018 rankings may be surprising only in that Alabama doesn’t rank dead last in any categories. Overall, ‘Bama ranks as the 46th best state in which to live. Here’s how we fared in individual categories:
• #46 in health care
• #47 in education
• #38 in economy
• #48 in opportunity
• #32 in infrastructure
• #42 in crime and corrections
• #25 in fiscal stability
• #35 in quality of life
So our best placement in any of these categories is slap in the middle. In every other but one we’re in the bottom third and scraping bottom in some of the most important categories.
We have done a good job of attracting some important industries to Alabama — aerospace, automotive, high tech — but things like quality of education and health care play big when people are thinking about moving to a new place. Trying to sell #47 in education isn’t easy. “Look at it this way, folks, your kids are going to feel a lot smarter when they get here.”
And there is the revenue issue to consider. USA Today ranks Alabama as the 14th best state in terms of tax burden, with 8.7 percent taxes as part of overall income. That’s not bad until you put it in context. We’re also fourth from bottom in average annual income ($38,896); #36 in income tax collections per capita ($687); have the lowest property tax collections per capita ($522); and seventh lowest general sales tax collections per capita ($507).
Essentially, we don’t take in much money, so there’s not much to spend.
Like most, I’m no fan of paying more taxes than necessary, but when you consider where we fall in such important rankings as education, opportunity and health care, I can’t help wondering if we’re not selling ourselves short by trying to get by on the super cheap. Consider the difference in income levels among our neighbor states in the SEC.
According to 2015 Census data, Louisiana has the highest state and local taxes per capita in the Southeast at $3,951. Alabama is at the bottom of the list with $3,144. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But Louisiana has a $3.9 billion revenue advantage over Alabama as a result. Tennessee is closest to us in revenue and still has $600 million more in their coffers per year. Alabama is actually $1,235 below the media tax burden when all 50 states are considered.
We could go on and on delving into the numbers, but that makes for pretty boring reading and the point is made. The biggest issues facing Alabama have nothing to do with sanctuary cities, the Second Amendment or abortion. Low taxes are great as long as you can do the things that need to be done, and it’s pretty clear from where we fall on most of these lists that we’re falling short.
I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom having the lowest property taxes in the country is more important than good public education, decent health care and quality infrastructure, but I doubt that’s the average Alabamian. So that’s why it’s worth talking about. And it’s why the people who want to run our state ought to be made to stand out in public and discuss their plans.
It’s terrific that Alabama, like the rest of the nation, is enjoying a growing economy, and new automobile plants in the north and new airline assembly lines in the south are great indicators we are indeed competitive despite these embarrassingly low rankings. But we should strive for better. Just being middle of the road would be a huge improvement.
About 20 years ago I made a decision to come back to Alabama to make a life, and I’m so glad I did. But I’d still like to see us climb off the bottom of the list and reach our potential. That doesn’t mean we need the highest taxes in America or more government intrusion into our lives, but it is going to take some real vision and an actual plan.
So come on, Gov. Ivey and Mayor Maddox — get together and tell us how you’re going to get us there. We deserve a chance to hear your plans.