GAWLEE! They Defeated
Property Tax Again!
by John Martin
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
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
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
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
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
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!"