‘Read my lips’ — state needs tax reform

Posted: Sunday, March 1, 2015 12:00 am

  • Gov. Robert Bentley was dishonest in his campaign, but he is right that Alabama needs more tax revenue.
It was 1988 when Vice President George H.W. Bush, a candidate for president, infamously pledged at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.”

He won the election.

Two years later he agreed to a budget deal increasing taxes, effectively sealing his fate as a one-term president.

Gov. Robert Bentley learned a lesson from Bush’s political mistake, but maybe not the one Alabamians would have wished. After four years of proclaiming a “no new tax” mantra, Bentley won a second term. The ballots had barely been counted when he proclaimed what all students of Alabama government already knew: The state needs new tax revenue.

In Bush’s case, the broken promise was excusable. He made the promise before he had served as president, and it took two years before harsh facts intruded on easy ideology.

Bentley has no such excuse. The state limped through his first term with borrowed money, one-time windfalls and increased fees. The $700 million shortfall Bentley announced in November, two weeks after the election, was not a surprise. The only shock was that a governor who prides himself on his candor would wait until after the election to be candid.

Unlike Bush, Bentley cannot pay a political price for his deception.

The temptation, then, is to punish him by rejecting his call for new tax revenue. That would be a mistake.

The GOP was convinced it could wring enough excess out of the state budget to avoid higher taxes. Bentley believed the same when he first took office, and he probably believed it well into his first term. His effort was not a failure. He streamlined several departments and took other steps that reduced the state’s expenditures.

The unfortunate reality is that Alabama cannot sustain the services and infrastructure its citizens need while having one of the lowest per-capita rates of taxation in the nation.

In fairness to Bentley and the GOP, the blame for inadequate revenue falls largely on a Democratic Party that controlled the state for 136 years. By insisting on regressive taxes that did not annoy the rich and powerful, they tried to run a state by creating a tax system that extracted money from those who could least afford it. Both as a matter of fairness and as a means to fiscal solvency, that needs to change.

Bentley’s pre-election dishonesty on Alabama’s financial plight deserves condemnation. In the process of condemning him, however, the public should recognize that the state cannot function without more revenue. Low- and middle-class residents already pay a disproportionate amount of their income in taxes. The path to responsible governance lies with reforms that — for the first time in Alabama’s history — place a greater burden on the wealthy.


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