Time to put up or shut up

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 10, 2003

MONTGOMERY &045; The ball is now in your court … it’s put up or shut up time … it’s time you put your money where your mouth is.

All those expressions come to mind in the wake of one of the most remarkable special sessions of the Alabama Legislature in history.

At the urging of Gov. Bob Riley … a man who as a congressman proudly boasted of never voting for a tax increase in his life … the lawmakers have approved a wide-ranging package of bills which will raise taxes by a boggling $1.2 billion.

But the key is that not one cent of new taxes will be collected unless you … the voters … say so.

Ninety days from the adjournment of the special session … probably Tuesday, Sept. 9 … the polls will be opened and the voters of Alabama will have the final say-so.

Without question, it was this requirement that the voters approve the package which resulted in its passage by the Legislature.

It was the political safety net they needed, and they embraced it with open arms.

Even before the gavels came down in the respective chambers ending the session, the campaign for and against the package had begun.

Stan Pate of Tuscaloosa, a political curmudgeon who has been unkindly dubbed a &uot;rich Shorty Price,&uot; financed a TV blitz several weeks ago attacking the tax play and calling the governor &uot;Billion Dollar Bob.&uot;

For those too young to remember, Price was a perennial candidate for governor during the 1950s and 1960s.

Last week, stealing a page from the Bush administration, Pate handed out decks of playing cards which ridiculed Riley and those who supported his plan. The cards were not unlike those used by the Bush administration to identify the &uot;most wanted&uot; leaders of Iraq.

The proponents of the tax/accountability package also began a statewide TV blitz, signalling what is sure to be an expensive advertising campaign on both sides of the issue.

The governor and the Legislature will be playing a critical game of what the young folks would call &uot;chicken&uot; with the tax referendum.

If the referendum is held Sept. 9 as expected, that is only three weeks before the start of the new fiscal year.

If the package should be turned down by the voters, the governor and the legislature will have little time to find the revenue to make up the projected shortfall of $600 million for the new year. And if that deficit is not made up, there will be cutbacks like none in state history &045; massive layoffs, programs discontinued … and yes, the very real possibility of no high school football.

Will the voters approve the package? Early polls indicate a slim majority will vote &uot;yes,&uot; but opponents are confident when the word is put out as to what the taxes will cost the people, support for the plan will plummet.

The big tax producers … a $410 million hike in income taxes and a $460 million increase in property taxes … will be the hard sells.

The reason most Alabamians get a state income tax refund is because they can claim their federal income taxes as a deduction.

The new law would disallow that deduction.

As to the big hike in property taxes, one need only look at how property tax increases have fared at the polls on a local level.

It is rare indeed when voters in local referendums have voted to increase property taxes.

There is something sacred about property taxes to Alabama voters … inexplicable but very real.

The scandal that has rocked The New York Times has hit close to home.

Executive editor Howell Raines, who resigned last week, is a Birmingham native;

and Ricky Bragg, a Putlizer Prize-winning feature writer, who resigned earlier is from rural Calhoun County.

Bragg authored the best selling &uot;All Over But The Shoutin’&uot;, a book about his growing up days in rural Calhoun and Cherokee counties.

He quit The Times after being suspended for two weeks for not giving proper credit to a story under his by-line which was largely written by one of his correspondents … &uot;stringers&uot; they are called in the trade.

Raines stepped down in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair journalistic fraud scandal.

The two are probably the most honored Alabamians in the journalism trade