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GAWLEE! They Defeated That
Property Tax Again!

by John Martin
August 2001

One of the best things about living in Alabama is that its taxes are among the lowest in the nation. Of particular importance, the property tax is THE lowest in the nation--by a wide margin.

The property tax is one of the most oppressive taxes there is. In essence, it requires a person to pay "rent" to the state to occupy and use his own property. It can also be arbitrary. A so-called "appraiser" can set, within certain limits, whatever value he chooses on anyone's property. The owner has little recourse except to complain, and he knows that too much complaining can sometimes bring negative responses from the powers that be. He has no choice but to pay whatever they ask or have his property seized and sold.

Property taxes are also invasive. They give state and local governments excuses to trespass and spy on local citizens to see if they are hiding anything. Intrusions range from aerial photographs to close inspections of anything that seems to have been improved. For personal property, agents can violate homes and businesses to inventory "taxable" property. Reappraisals occur all too often, often as frequently as every four or five years, and the cost of these is added to the tax bill. Privacy rights, of course, go out the window.

Alabama's low-taxed citizens owe their good fortune to the writers of the state's constitution back in 1901, a time when the political arena was occupied by statesmen instead of greedy politicians and special interests. These people had the foresight to require a referendum from the people whenever a tax increase was proposed, preventing arbitrary increases of taxes without the consent of those who paid them.

In 1901, the property tax was the only widely used state and local tax. Income and sales taxes were not even considered in Alabama in those days. When these taxes were developed later in the 1930's, they were not subjected to this constitutional restraint, and therefore they rose to higher levels than the property tax. Even so, Alabama has managed to avoid some of the more extreme government excesses that other, more "progressive" states have suffered.

Property tax referendums are a way of life in Alabama. Politicians continuously bombard the voters with opportunities to saddle themselves with higher taxes and more abusive government programs. A favorite is education. They keep repeating that it's "for the children." Often they are so impatient, instead of waiting until the next regular election, they spend tax dollars to hold a special one so they can get their tax increase ASAP and sneak the election through before opponents can organize.

A typical example happened recently in Alexander City. In January 2001, the local board of education decided that the school system needed more money, ostensibly to head off an estimated $500,000 deficit and to offset reduced tax collections due to layoffs and declining revenues from Russell Corporation, the area's largest employer and taxpayer. Alex City Superintendent of Education, Jim Nabors, said, "The future doesn't look bright right now."

The new tax was not a small one. It would have raised the local rate from three to nine mills--a 200% increase. It was a really hard knock for the thousands of residents faced with a declining economy, evaporating savings and job losses. While the private sector was forced to tighten its belt and adapt to hard times, the "educrats" were demanding more of people's dwindling incomes and savings for their top-heavy government-run education empire.

Needless to say, the tax proposal failed. It was really no surprise. The surprise was that it failed by a very narrow margin of only 27 votes. Many of the opponents had fallen asleep at the switch and had not voted.

Frustrated by the defeat but encouraged by a near victory, the tax supporters wasted no time petitioning their local legislators to grant them another special election.

On August 21, the people were again faced with the prospect of a tax increase. Proponents and opponents were now engaged in a heated battle.

A small group of tax proponents calling themselves "The 21st Century Committee" opened a downtown office, and volunteers harassed local residents over the phone for weeks attempting to prod them to vote for the tax. They also spent a considerable sum for hundreds of signs they placed on lawns, in front of offices and along streets that said, "SOLD on better schools. Vote yes--August 21."

The local paper, The Outlook, devoted several front pages to stories supporting the tax increase, and the Montgomery Advertiser also ran an editorial endorsing the tax--as it has routinely supported tax increases of every stripe in the past.

"We're a lot more visible this time," said Nabors. "We were advised not to rile anybody up the last time, and it almost worked."

But the people were riled up. One of the opposition leaders was actually named Ryles--Leonard Ryles--and he was hopping mad. "I think we'll beat 'em by 200 votes this time," he said. "The more they keep calling these elections, the wiser people become."

The city's elderly also made it clear they wanted no part of a tax increase. They remembered going to superior schools that cost a fraction of what today's money pits consume.

Russell Corporation wanted none of it either. After its economic black eye, massive layoffs and restructuring, it was in no mood to triple its $610,000 a year school tax bill.

Nabors said that if the tax failed a second time, "I won't support another on my watch."

August 21 came and went. The result was what an overtaxed population would expect, and welcome. The decision was clear: "NO MORE TAXES." The increase suffered its second defeat in seven months. The vote was 2268 no's to 2069 yea's--a margin of 199 votes. Leonard Ryles' prediction missed by just one vote. The tribe had spoken.

Steve Forehand, a local lawyer and board of education member said, "We'll now look for ways to cut programs. Our first responsibility is to the education of our children." Well, why didn't Mr. Forehand think of that in the first place?

Ryles said, "What they wanted to do was squander money and the people wouldn't go along with it."

And poor old Jim Nabors just couldn't get it. He must have said, "Gawlee!"


John Martin writes from Elmore County.
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