It was like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — some kind of alien warning of doom and gloom and everyone freaking out.
That’s the only thing I can think of that compares to a Republican governor proposing a $700 million tax increase in Alabama. Surely aliens have taken Gov. Robert Bentley to Alpha Centauri for extensive cavity searches and replaced him with a tax-raising clone. Right?
The alien Bentley has sent out word he would be proposing this tax increase during his State of the State address March 3. Pandemonium should sweep the state shortly thereafter and I’d expect utter lawlessness to kick in around noon March 4. We don’t “cotton” to tax increases around these parts, if you know what I mean.
So what’s all this about, other than potential alien kidnappings? Bentley says he’s tried to budget to the best of his dermatological abilities but keeps coming up short. Actually, to say the state has been short is probably an otherworldly understatement.
Just three years ago voters allowed the transfer of $437 million from the Alabama Trust Fund to the General Fund, which took place over three years. So that’s over in September, but the Legislature has promised to pay the money back by 2026, which is 11 years away, so let’s not worry about that right now. In the meantime, Bentley or rather his alien drone is saying the budget is so out of whack taxes must be raised in order to keep the state government on solid financial footing.
I suppose what’s probably so unnerving about all of this is Bentley’s not exactly known as a “tax-and-spend” kind of guy. Heading into his fifth year in charge, Dr. Governor is more known for extreme financial tightness. So when he says there’s a financial problem that requires raising taxes, it’s something. Or the work of aliens.
One of the immediate issues Bentley wants to address is moving $187 million in money back to the education budget that was raided to keep the General Fund solvent. Same with $63 million in gasoline taxes going back for road funding.
In talking about the proposed increase Bentley said, “I don’t sugarcoat it and I’m not going to sugarcoat this. We need the money.” The only way that could have been more compelling is if he held out a battered fedora.
I’m no fan of raising taxes, but having watched the state government for some time, I’m not so sure Alabama isn’t honestly dealing with some fundamental financial issues that aren’t going to be solved without restructuring or new revenue sources. That doesn’t mean I’m immediately in favor of just raising taxes though.
While the General Fund is supported by sources considered fairly stable, other biggies such as the Education Trust Fund rely on sales and income taxes that fluctuate from year to year, which generally creates the problem. In good times Alabama is flush with cash, but when the economy gets tough it gets really hard to make ends meet. But we’ve known this for years and don’t do anything about it.
So what are the answers to this ongoing problem? Having not seen the governor’s proposals, it’s too early to say whether they have merit or not. But if they’re just more consumer-based taxes, I’m not sure that’s the best way to do things.
Our state has some of the lowest property taxes in the country, which is nice for property owners but tough for budgeting. It’s long been suggested we attempt to flip the script a bit and lower sales and other usage taxes while at the same time raising property taxes in the state. It would seem that type of move would at least give budgeters a more predictable pile of cast each year out of which they can draw up the budget. Others also argue doing so would put more of the state’s financial burden upon the wealthy land owners as opposed to the poorest shoppers.
Doing this wouldn’t really affect most of us much, if the state let you keep more in one pocket but took more out of the other, but big land owners (a.k.a. really wealthy people) don’t like the idea one bit and they have lots of clout.
So what to do?
Bentley’s indicated he’s going to push the Legislature hard for this tax increase, but already says he knows he’s not going to get everything he’s asking for. Meanwhile there’s talk of how Medicaid is growing and other imminent needs, such as roads and prisons, as well as keeping the Education Trust Fund properly supplied.
I still think the state should have taken the billion-plus for Medicaid being offered by Washington, as it would have shorn up that issue for quite some time, but that’s another topic. How we raise revenue without raising taxes or restructuring the way taxes are paid in Alabama is really what we’re talking about.
Simple — alien science. Surely a more advanced race has figured out to get more out of less.
It seems we’re at an impasse. The governor says he wants a $700-million increase, but the Legislature seems balky and nobody really wants to deal with the basic issues. The answer staring me straight in the face is gambling.
I know, I know, that might be harder than changing property taxes because so many people seem to think it’s the Devil’s work, but a few more sinful casinos in this state would help bring the budget in line. Look what they’ve done for Mississippi.
If you haven’t been to Biloxi lately, it’s pretty amazing how much it’s changed. Even Ocean Springs, across Biloxi Bay, is completely transformed from what it was even a decade ago. It’s bustling downtown reminds me of Magazine Street in New Orleans, not Fairhope.
It will be interesting to see what Bentley’s alien overlords have in mind for this tax increase, but the hollering that will ensue is easy to predict. Maybe taking a different tack towards raising funds would ultimately be a better gamble for the state.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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