The lesson behind the Holtzclaw-Bentley brawl

Posted: Monday, March 2, 2015 12:00 am

The Issue

A spat between the governor and a local state senator was great theater, but it underlined the often forgotten truism that we depend on a government that cannot function without adequate tax revenue.

It was bare-knuckle Alabama politics with an important lesson for Alabama voters.

In the ring were Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and state Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, who represents parts of Madison and Limestone counties.

The match began when Bentley announced state finances are at a crisis point, and the only solution is more revenue. He gave no specifics, but Holtzclaw immediately removed his gloves. He posted a billboard message in Huntsville saying, “Governor Bentley wants to raise your taxes. I will not let that happen.”

And then came a hard jab from Bentley, or at least from his appointed director of transportation, John Cooper, who announced he was halting state-funded road projects in Holtzclaw’s district.

“If Sen. Holtzclaw feels that strongly about taxes, he probably wouldn’t be comfortable with a significant amount of tax dollars being spent in his district as we had planned,” Cooper said.

The match ended quickly, with Bentley saying the projects would be reinstated.

“But I want to say this: We have serious problems in this state and for a state senator to be critical … before he has even seen any of the solutions, is irresponsible,” Bentley said Friday in a less-than-courteous retreat.

It was great theater, with Alabamians cheering for their favorite combatant and local officials petrified that their own loose-lipped legislators would jeopardize critical infrastructure projects.

In the midst of the drama, however, was a serious lesson.

There is not a legislator in north Alabama who did not loudly proclaim opposition to tax increases when campaigning. Any candidate who had the gall to suggest responsible tax reform as the only way out of Alabama’s financial mess would not be in office.

Which is to say that what appears to be a personal battle between Bentley and Holtzclaw is really a broader clash.

Simultaneously, Alabamians want good roads and want taxes that are among the lowest in the nation. They want the state to pump tens of millions of dollars into incentive packages for Polaris and Carpenter Technology — both in Limestone County — but they don’t want to pay the taxes that make it possible.

The state wants prisons to hold criminals, but they don’t want to pay the inevitable bill. They want strong schools, but not if it affects their pocketbook.

It’s a particularly odd paradox in the Tennessee Valley, which owes its economic vitality to Huntsville’s tax-financed employers. Take away Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center and the hundreds of contractors that support them, and the Valley is no longer the gem of Alabama.

There was a time when conservatism meant fiscal responsibility. It has been twisted into an anti-government ideology. As Bentley reminded north Alabama in his brief spat with Holtzclaw, government — a government controlled by the people — provides essential services upon which all Alabamians depend. If we want those services to continue, fiscal responsibility requires that we pay the taxes needed to sustain it.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Tax reform

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