(Talon News) — Republican Alabama Gov. Bob Riley stirred up controversy last month when he told voters that it is their “Christian duty” to support his $1.2 billion tax increase. Riley’s tax package, aimed at erasing budget deficits and reforming an antiquated tax structure, will be decided in a Sept. 9 referendum.

Riley, a Southern Baptist who took office in January said, “According to our Christian ethics, we’re supposed to love God, love each other, and help take care of the poor.”

The governor has been unable to enlist the support of Alabama’s Christian Coalition, which is leading opposition to his plan. They had previously defeated another governor’s attempt to fund education with a statewide lottery.

While many religious groups support reform of the state’s tax system, few have signed on to Riley’s proposal. The Alabama Christian Coalition passed a resolution in May opposing the raising of taxes and blaming the state’s budget woes on “years of poor stewardship and fiscal irresponsibility.”

In a statement, the group said, “The Christian Coalition is unable to support any new permanent tax proposals to cure historical systemic failures and poor public policy of reckless and unmerited spending habits.”

The national Christian Coalition broke with the state organization when its president, Roberta Combs made unannounced visits in four cities across Alabama on Aug. 6 to speak in favor of Riley’s plan.

“The Christian Coalition of America supports Gov. Riley’s plan for tax reform, because it is clearly and unquestionably designed to help the least among us and asks those who are most able to pay their share,” Combs said in a statement.

Alabama Christian Coalition President John Giles suggested that politics played a part in the national organization’s actions since one of their basic tenets is to oppose tax increases.

Stunned by the national organization’s support of Riley’s proposal, the state chapter reached out to other national conservative organizations. Over 30 organizations signed a letter sent to Alabama state leaders in opposition of the tax increases. Among them were Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, the National Taxpayers Union, and the 60 Plus Association.

Their letter points out that the tax increase of $1.2 billion is for every year, not just a one-time adjustment. It cites a study that predicts a loss of 24,000 jobs and a drop in investment in the state of $403 million.

Even Riley’s own party is opposing his plan. Two of the governor’s cabinet members resigned after the governor announced his proposal.

Critics of the plan claim that Riley got the support of the teachers’ union by inserting language into the referendum that would prohibit public funding of private schools, effectively killing school voucher programs. Alabama Democrat Party Chairman Redding Pitt is also backing him.

The state is facing a $675 million deficit, and without new revenue, Riley has threatened to release prisoners, cut medicine for the mentally ill, and end Medicaid payments for many nursing home residents. Opponents say there is a “whispering campaign” that promises a push for gambling in Alabama should the referendum fail.

Polls show that the referendum may be headed for defeat. A Philadelphia newspaper on Tuesday quoted Gov. Bob Riley’s policy director, David Stewart, as saying Riley’s tax plan is behind in the polls because, “The people of Alabama are too … stupid to know better.”

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