Give the low-income majority a voice

Posted: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 12:00 am

The Issue

  • On this first day of the legislative session, the Alabama Legislature should show a willingness to solve the state’s fiscal problems without increasing the tax burden on the low-income majority.
It’s a momentous day, or should be.

It’s a day when Alabamians expect to see self-governance in its noblest form. Thirty-five state senators and 105 House members, elected by the people, will come together in Montgomery to represent the interests of 4.8 million Alabamians.

Whether Alabama’s effort at governing itself is successful depends largely on the extent in which the voices of those 4.8 million Alabamians can be heard through their elected officials in Montgomery. Any test of the Legislature’s success in representing its constituents, therefore, requires a basic understanding of the people it represents.

Alabama is a desperately poor state. It is in the bottom five of all states when it comes to median income and per-capita gross domestic product.

Forty-two percent of Alabama households have an income of less than $35,000. A solid majority of households, 56 percent, have incomes below $50,000. Half of Alabama households bring in $43,000 or less. Some, of course, are better off. Just under 3 percent of Alabama households bring in more than $200,000 a year, and almost 6 percent of households make more than $150,000.

Fifty-nine percent of Alabama’s K-12 students receive free or reduced lunch. Twenty-seven percent of Alabama children live in poverty.

These grim numbers do not dictate a specific legislative agenda, but they suggest some logical directions.

For starters, Alabama needs to get its finances in order. Gov. Robert Bentley estimates a $700 million shortfall in fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1. Nobody likes to pay more taxes, but sensible people understand that self-governance requires funding.

So the question becomes how the Legislature can address the financial imperative of raising revenue while honoring the democratic imperative of representing a low-income population.

The answer is not mysterious, and it does not require a novel approach. It requires doing what most states already do: exact at least as heavy a tax burden from the wealthy as from the poor. Alabama does not do that. The half of Alabama households with incomes below $43,000 pay at least 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The percentage drops steadily as household income goes up, with those households enjoying the top 1 percent in income paying less than 5 percent in state and local taxes.

The Legislature can both solve its perpetual budget crisis and reduce the burden on the low-income majority by implementing basic reforms that reduce the state’s dependence on regressive taxes.

Throughout state history, the Legislature has catered to the wealthy — and politically powerful — minority.

Today, on the first day of the legislative session, the Legislature has an opportunity to demonstrate that 4.8 million Alabamians have a voice in Montgomery.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Income inequality

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