The Credibility Gap: Our Greatest Obstacle to Progress

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With less than three weeks to go before the statewide referendum on a $1.2 billion tax increase it appears that the initiative will not pass. And if it is defeated, it also appears that the backers of the plan will not know why.

There are many intelligent people among those who are pushing the tax increase that are truly well meaning. Yet, if the campaign tactics and media statements from some of them in the last week or so are any indication, they are completely out of touch with the average Alabama voter. For the majority of Alabama voters this is not a referendum on whether or not the state needs more money or even on tax fairness; it is a referendum on the public’s distrust of and disgust with state government.


Public cynicism is being manifested toward government in our state at every level. For instance, just last year Houston County and the city of Dothan held a referendum on a property tax increase. Prior to the referendum I was asked to participate in a public affairs program on a local TV station. During the interview I explained to the host that I believed the decision for most voters would not come down to whether or not the schools or the government have enough money. The issue would be that the majority of voters have no confidence that government at any level will spend the taxpayers’ money effectively or efficiently.

When the ballots were counted in the referendum, the proposal to raise property taxes was defeated with 80 percent opposed. Given that only 20 percent voted for the tax increase, it could be argued that the only people that supported it were government employees.

The single greatest obstacle the state of Alabama faces is the lack of credibility of the government. I believe most Alabamians would be willing to invest more in education and other government services if we first and foremost had major reform for real accountability.

Real accountability would place limits on state spending to remove the incentives for legislators to spend every dime they get. Real accountability would require annual budgets that are based on the revenues collected by the state in the previous year. In other words, our state budget would be limited to the money we actually have, rather than on estimates of how much we think we will have.

Real accountability would include a tax and expenditure limitation (TEL) that would allow the Legislature to increase its spending within reasonable limits. Once that limit is reached, the surplus revenues would be used to fund a budget reserve account for years when revenues are lower than normal. Since politicians would not be able to spend beyond the limit, any additional money would then be sent back to the people instead of remaining in Montgomery to be spent on bigger government.

Real accountability would allow more flexibility for local government, especially local school systems, to make decisions based on what is best for them rather than have decisions made for them by Montgomery bureaucrats or legislators with less than noble intentions. Real accountability would allow some state and local services to be contracted to private companies as a means of saving money while still getting quality service.

And real accountability would require performance-based budgets for every state agency, including the Department of Education, so that the taxpayers can have a reasonable ability to determine what they are getting for their money.

Unfortunately, the people that support the tax increase have completely misjudged the common sense of the people of Alabama. And as usual, they have resorted to unseemly scare tactics and misrepresentations to try and garner their support.

One young mother of two school-age children who reads this column in her local newspaper called me about what she and her neighbors are being told by local officials. She detailed the usual threats of no school books, inmates being released from state prisons, the elderly being left without their drugs, etc.

This young mother is married to a mechanic and they live in a manufactured home in a rural area of the state. They support their local school and understand the need for more money, and they would be willing to pay more taxes even though they are among those that would supposedly benefit from the proposed tax plan. But they don’t support the tax increase because they know, as do most informed people, that there is not enough accountability to justify giving the politicians and bureaucrats another $1.2 billion.

As this young mother explained to me, it would be dumb to believe that the same people who got us into this mess to start with can be trusted with another billion dollars. Come September 9th, her vote alongside those of thousands of other common-sense Alabamians should be a wake-up call to Alabama politicians to put-no, not more tax money, but real accountability measures “where their mouths are”-and begin to narrow what is now a gaping credibility gap.

”’Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.”’

”’This column is a copyrighted feature of the Alabama Policy Institute. Gary Palmer can be reached via email at:”’ ”’Visit the organization’s Web site at:”’