National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Alabama governor says faith drives tax reform

Religion News Service

First there was “What Would Jesus Do?” Then there was “What Would Jesus Drive?”

Now Christians in Alabama are asking, “What (or Whom) Would Jesus Tax?”

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a conservative Republican and Southern Baptist, has proposed a $1.2 billion tax package that raises taxes on the wealthiest residents and businesses and cuts taxes on poor families. Riley argues that he has a moral obligation to do so, said David Azbell, the governor’s press secretary.

“Gov. Riley has said many times that there are three things he has found in reading the New Testament,” Azbell said. “We are to love God, love our neighbor and take care of the poorest of the poor.”

Azbell said the tax plan helps make “an immoral tax system moral.” He notes that in Alabama, a family of four that makes as little as $4,600 a year still has to pay income taxes. In neighboring Mississippi, that figure is $19,000. “I just don’t think you can find a justification in the New Testament for taxing a family that makes $4,600 a year,” he said.

Riley’s plan, which fills a $675 million shortfall in Alabama’s budget and provides new money for education and other state services, passed the state legislature in June. It now faces a Sept. 9 referendum. Azbell said that Alabama’s churches will play a key role in getting the tax package approved.

In recent years, Alabama’s Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists have all passed resolutions calling for tax reform, and the idea has been supported by Catholic and Jewish leaders.

One of the leading advocates for tax reform is University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill. Hamill’s interest in the issue was sparked by a newspaper article she read during a sabbatical at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., which labeled Alabama’s income tax as “the least fair” in the country.

Before that time, said Hamill, a former IRS attorney who teaches tax and business law, she was just “too busy” to notice the inequities in Alabama’s tax system.

“There were lots of little signs that should have tipped me off that something was seriously wrong here,” she said. Like the sales tax on groceries that was “abysmally high,” she said, while “the property tax on my house was ridiculously low, and the school that my kids attend was constantly begging for donations to meet things that ought to be part of the regular budget.”

That combination, said Hamill, means that Alabama’s poorest residents pay almost 11 percent of their income in state taxes while the richest pay less than 4 percent. Most tax codes, she said, are progressive -- the more income someone has, the higher rate they pay.

“There is no defense for putting a greater proportional burden on the poor, known as regressive taxation,” Hamill said.

Hamill has become a kind of evangelist for tax reform -- speaking in churches, writing op-ed pieces, and publishing a law review article titled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics,” based on a yearlong study of Alabama’s tax system.

John Giles, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, said that he supports the idea of giving tax relief to the poor. But a $1.2 billion tax increase “is a separate issue.”

“Some of the governor’s advisers are trying to make this [tax increase] more palatable by adding the issue of tax relief for the poor,” he said.

Giles argues that the state’s budget shortfall is caused by mismanagement by the state legislature, and that the cure is “good stewardship.” Taxpayers should not be asked to make up for mistakes of the past, he said.

“What are the taxpayers supposed to do?” said Giles, “Go back to the legislature and say, ‘Well done, now here’s another $1.2 billion for you to waste’ ?”

But the Rev. James Evans of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, who supports the governor’s plan, said that one of the most important things that Jesus did was “to take care of people’s past mistakes.”

Alabama’s Christians need to do likewise, Evans said. “To say that we are not responsible for the mistakes of the past keeps us tied to those mistakes and keeps in place a system that hurts people,” he said. “That’s not good theology or good civics.”

Dan Ireland of the conservative Alabama Citizens Action Program doesn’t like “the idea of paying more income tax,” but still supports the governor’s plan. Ireland, who led a 1999 campaign that defeated a proposed state lottery, said that if the plan fails, that may mean a push for more gambling.

“If we don’t pass this plan, what are we going to do?” he asked. “Cut [state] services? Or are we going to start listening to the gambling folks who say that gambling is the salvation for economic development?”

Related Web Sites

The Least of These: Tax Reform and the Commands of Faith

Arise Citizens’ Policy Project

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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