Riley#039;s plan

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 22, 2003

Give Gov. Bob Riley full credit. Faced with the financial meltdown of state government, he has come up with a solution that not only addresses the immediate money problems, but contains many elements to make this a better managed state that is fair in its treatment of all residents and taxpayers. A state that allows and helps its people to reach their full potentials.

While the complex plan needs further study and perhaps modification to ensure the details match the administration's stated goals, the goals themselves are excellent ones, most of which have long been advocated by individuals and organizations devoted to good government.

The problem in Alabama has not been a lack of knowledge about what needs to be done to make our tax system both adequate and fair. Nor is it not knowing what needs to be done to the political and governing process to make it responsive to the people of Alabama.

The knowledge is contained in many past studies by state government and public interest organizations that are gathering dust on shelves, not to mention in major reporting efforts by newspapers across this state.

What has been lacking is the political will to make the necessary changes. Even when previous governors proposed more modest reforms than Riley is proposing, their proposals were shot down by forces that benefit from the status quo and from people afraid of change.

Riley's proposal will face this same short-sighted opposition, although he has made efforts to defuse some of the more powerful potential opponents. In fact, within minutes of his televised address Monday night, a political ad by an anti-tax "coalition" using a Huntsville address was aired attacking "Billion Dollar Bob." We will probably see more of that ad.

The one political advantage Riley has over his predecessors in pushing for reform is, paradoxically, that state government is in far worse financial shape than it has been in more than a half-century.

Alabama governmental finances have long been precarious. Overdependence on taxes that closely track the economy, excessive earmarking that deprives state officials of flexibility and generations of adding patches to get past this or that fiscal crisis have produced a tax structure that cannot stand up to hard economic times.

While many other states are currently in serious financial difficulty because of the national economy, those governments have some hope their state treasuries will recover as the economy does. Without major changes in its tax structure, Alabama's recovery will lag far behind the economy.

It's too early to judge whether Riley's proposal will survive the legislative process basically intact - or whether it should. However, it is clear that the governor is trying to lead us in the right direction.