I think many people who don't get paid for waging politics are becoming quite frustrated with dysfunctional legislatures that are now polarized--as in Congress or in California--essentially along the cultural faultlines created by 30 years of allowing judges to pre-empt the broader community's ability to discover, or re-examine, its social beliefs. These legislators have become little more than clerks to judges and the complainants in their courts--the law as not much more than a brief. When this happens, citizens lose their status as voters or electors and become mere courtroom spectators. How can this be good?
The leaders of World War II, on both sides, knew that an army's lifeblood was petroleum. Ironically, before the War, experts had scoffed at Adolph Hitler's idea that he could conquer the world largely because Germany had almost no indigenous supplies of petroleum. Hitler, however, had begun assembling a large industrial complex to manufacture synthetic petroleum from Germany's abundant coal supplies.
When Allied bombing of the German synfuels plants began taking its toll in late 1944 and early 1945, the entire Nazi war machine began grinding to a halt. More than 92 percent of Germany's aviation gasoline and half its total petroleum during World War II had come from synthetic fuel plants. At its peak in early 1944, the German synfuels effort produced more than 124,000 barrels per day from 25 plants. In February 1945, one month after Allied forces turned back the Hitler's troops at the Battle of the Bulge, German production of synthetic aviation gasoline amounted to just a thousand tons – one half of one percent of the level of the first four months of 1944. None was to be produced afterwards. Lack of petrol meant the end of the war and the end of the Third Reich.
What Alabama's Low-Tax Mania Can Teach the Rest of the Country
By ADAM COHEN
Published: October 20, 2003
The budget ax is swinging in Alabama, and the carnage is piling up. A hundred and fifty fewer low-income AIDS patients will receive life-saving medicines from the state. Fifteen thousand low-income Alabamians may lose their hypertension drugs.
High Hopes, a program that offers after-school tutoring to students who fail the high school graduation exam, is being slashed. And up to 1,500 poor children and adults with Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities will not be able to attend a state-supported special-needs camp.
The cuts are reaching down to core government functions. The court system is laying off 500 of 1,600 workers, from clerk's office employees to probation officers. The health department is losing investigators who track tuberculosis, and sharply reducing restaurant inspections.
Alabama's huge budget gap is a result of the voters' rejection, nearly six weeks ago, of Gov. Bob Riley's tax reform plan, which would have generated an additional $1.2 billion, much of it from undertaxed timberland. After the vote, Governor Riley was forced to cut most state agencies by 18 percent, and other recipients of state funds by 75 percent. Bad as things are, the impact is being blunted by a fortuitous one-time injection of federal funds. Next year agencies are bracing for a 56 percent hit. If the state cannot find more revenue and Governor Riley is searching it may be nearly impossible for basic services, including courts, prisons and police, to operate.
Alabama's disintegrating government is a problem, certainly, for anyone in the state. But it may also be a harbinger of where the nation is headed. There is a "starve the beast" ethic, currently fashionable among conservatives, holding that the best way to downsize government and end the social safety net is to get voters to demand lower taxes. But before we hurtle any further in that direction, we should think hard about whether we want the whole nation to look like Alabama does this year or, worse, next year.
Alabama is not a wealthy state, but its bigger problem is that it is not making an effort to raise the taxes it needs. It is 48th in the nation in state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income, according to Governing magazine. And it has the nation's least equitable tax system. Alabama's income tax kicks in for families of four earning just $4,600. Its property taxes are the lowest in the nation, Governing reports, and "heavily favor farming interests."
As a Republican congressman, Governor Riley strongly opposed tax increases. But when he took over the state government, he realized it could not run on the revenues coming in. He courageously offered up a tax package that raised the needed revenue while shifting the burden from overtaxed poor people to undertaxed business interests. But the package was defeated by a skeptical electorate, with many of the no votes coming from low-income Alabamians, whose taxes would have gone down.
The voters were not entirely wrong to be skeptical. No budget is free of waste, not even Alabama's meager one. There is a state tradition of legislative pork, patronage controlled by key legislators. And powerful lobbies, notably the teachers' union, have long gotten more than their share of state funds. But Governor Riley has already trimmed much of the pork. And next year, he will no doubt take aim at teacher benefit packages.
It is easy to sell voters on low taxes, and a well-financed campaign by Alabama's business community aided, shamefully, by the state Christian Coalition did just that. What is harder, but vital right now, is making the more challenging case for why taxes, and sometimes even tax increases, are necessary.
One message Alabama voters needed to hear more clearly was that rejecting higher taxes costs more in the long run. Saving $10,000 by denying medicine to a poor, H.I.V.-positive woman is no bargain if she ends up in a state hospital with full-blown AIDS needing $100,000 in care. Tutoring high school students in danger of failing is cheap compared with paying for welfare or prison.
Alabama voters also need to realize that by entrenching their state at the bottom of the national rankings in taxes and government services, they are putting themselves on the margins of the new, global economy, and sabotaging their future tax base. Businesses looking for low taxes and cheap government will pass right over Alabama and head for Mexico. And companies that want well-educated, skilled workers, the companies Alabama needs to attract, will not locate in a state where high school students do not graduate, TB cases are not tracked and the restaurants may be hazardous.
The nation is facing precisely the same issues as Alabama. The Bush administration has tried to delude the public into thinking we can fight a war, rebuild Iraq, fix our schools, get prescription drug benefits and still enjoy the largest tax cut in history. But the deficit cannot grow forever. Eventually, we will have to pay more or, as "starve the beast" proponents hope, do with much less.
Last month, Alabama voted for fewer social services, less education, and a shoddier legal system to become, that is, more like a third-world nation. But low as taxes are, the state will never be better at being an underdeveloped country than actual underdeveloped countries are. Alabama's best chance, and the nation's, is to invest in its people and civic institutions, the things that set America apart.
Governor Riley's setback last month is being hailed by national antitax forces as a great victory. But if Alabama heads into next year without additional revenues, students may have to learn without textbooks, prisoners may be released early, and people may start dying of preventable diseases. We should all pay attention, because if the "starve the beast" crowd continues to prevail in Washington, as goes Alabama so may go the nation.
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