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Riley offers tax plan to the public

With a bust of Ronald Reagan over his right shoulder, Gov. Bob Riley hoped to become Alabama's own version of "The Great Communicator" as he addressed the citizens of Alabama during a speech carried live over most of the state's television stations.

Riley's speech, a landmark for Alabama, was an introduction of sorts to a specially called session of the legislature to try and find a solution to Alabama's financial crisis, specifically school funding.

"Tonight, we find ourselves at a crossroads in our state's history," Riley said as he opened his speech. "Alabama faces the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression and now must choose which road to take - one that repeats the failures of our past or one that leads to a better future."

From that, Riley continued his speech, although few details were actually given to the people about his plans for solving Alabama's money woes.

"For too many years, our state government has been living on borrowed time and borrowed money

robbing Peter to pay Paul. In just the past four years, the state has doubled the amount of money it has borrowed. Even more troubling, our debt payments were scheduled to balloon by almost $110 million this year.

Even our children's rainy day fund will be depleted," Riley said.

Riley said the state's constitution requires a balanced budget by October 1 - but with the current situation, and cuts that have already been made - it would be impossible unless major, deeper cuts are made.

"We cannot balance our budget with cuts alone," he said. "Not unless we are willing to lay off thousands of teachers and cancel all extra-curricular activities, open prison doors and put convicted felons back on the streets, and force thousands of seniors out of nursing homes and take away their prescription drugs. These are not scare tactics - this is reality - and I cannot, in good conscience, order such cuts."

With that in mind, Riley, a Republican, got to the heart of his speech, placing the cold hard facts to the people, and proposing the one thing most expected, but few wanted to hear - new taxes.

"Tonight, I am proposing what I believe to be the fairest and most comprehensive government reform package in Alabama history. One that will forever chance the way government and education operate in our state."

In a reference to Reagan, Riley laid the new taxes on the table.

"When Ronald Reagan was first elected Governor of California, he faced a similar crisis. When asked why he was raising taxes, he replied, 'Because I have no other choice.'"

"Neither do we," Riley said.

Riley said the need for additional revenue was "clear," and "I refuse to ask the people of this state to pay another dime into this system."

Instead, Riley placed the future of the state directly on the people, asking them to "invest in our future to finally move Alabama forward."

Briefly outlining his plan, without going into major details, Riley said he wants real reform and expects real accountability, and that his plan will unearmark additional revenue so it can be used where the need is greatest.

"If we are going to ask you to give more, then you are going to get more and still have one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation."

In an outline released to the state's media earlier in the day, Riley's plan calls for changes in the state's tenure rules for teachers, providing scholarships for eligible students, and eliminating certain tax deductions and personal exemptions and revising others.

Perhaps what makes the governor's plan so unique, as Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, a Democrat, put it, was not the fact it is historic, but that all of the bills are combined together.

"The governor's package is all lumped together," she said. "The people of Alabama will make the decision to accept it all or reject it all if a constitutional amendment is placed on the ballot."

Although Baxley said she had her concerns about the package, she said she knows change is needed, and believes most Alabamians do as well.

"I believe most people in the state know we don't have adequate funding, and are ready to do something about it."