If not now, when?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2003

We, the people of Alabama, have an opportunity on Sept. 9 to say "yes" to greater accountability in government and to reform of tax revenues that will assure fairness and equity. If not now, when? If not this, what? The answers are clear. This is one last chance in our lifetime to stand up and be counted for the state we love.

For decades, Alabama has filled huge holes in the financial infrastructure with short-term prorated state budgets and quick fixes, including some of the nation’s highest sales taxes. Without long-term planning to solve our financial problems, we are now coming to a financial standstill, with frayed patches on state budgets that no longer can disguise the real problems at their core.

Legislators have been afraid to tell Alabama voters we are headed for dire circumstances. Now, as we face a $675 million deficit, many wonder how this happened and why we did not know before now.

There have been warning signs, such as proration and countless bond issues to fund essential needs.

We all looked the other way, refusing to face the inevitable.

Band aids and bond issues no longer work.

The wake up call has been sounded. Gov. Bob Riley wisely chose the road to progress as our best approach.

He took a stand to challenge the status quo with a plan for progress that will help the majority of our fellow Alabamians. Two out of every three Alabama families will directly benefit from the Amendment One tax package.

The Governor could have taken the easy way out, as so many have done in the past.

He could have avoided telling us the whole truth, quietly allowing state agencies to be gutted, jobs lost, services stopped.

The Governor could have blamed the resulting chaos on the economy or the Legislature.

Instead Bob Riley chose to tell us the facts.

Our antiquated system no longer works.

We lag further behind in the South and the nation in funding public services.

We unfairly tax the poor in a way that is shameful.

We have said "no" to a lottery. Now we must say "yes" to reform and accountability, because this plan asks and answers the fair questions. Where are we out of line regionally and nationally? While the plan raises property tax, we will still be one of the lowest in the nation after Amendment One passes.

The plan exempts the first 200 acres of farm land for everyone.

The plan also exempts the first 2000 acres for current use, which is the highest current use exemption in America. This is fair.

For working families, the plan exempts the first $20,000 for a family of four from state income taxes.

Today that same family in Alabama begins paying state income tax on income of $4,600 per year, while in Mississippi the exemption is $19,000.

The child exemption is increased from $300 to $2,200, the first change since the Great Depression.

Homeowners are supported by raising the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $50,000.

Even when the referendum passes, our taxes per person will be lower than 44 other states and the lowest in the Southeast.

Those who will be asked to pay more on their house, land or business will now be taxed competitively with our neighboring states.

We have sold ourselves short too long. Now we can fix it.

No one else has offered a plan for reform and accountability. They only cry, "cut." As Governor Riley has said countless times, "We are already at the bottom of most of the best lists and the top of the worst lists!" We have a chance on Sept. 9 to change that.

Let's join a very courageous governor, who has bravely determined to be honest with us.

We can be better.

We want to be better.

We believe in ourselves and we have hope in our future.

We will trust in Bob Riley's leadership and we will respond with action and advocacy for better government in Alabama.

We thank him and the Legislature, both Republicans and Democrats, for giving us this opportunity to change history.

As others have said, this may represent the most historic vote in Alabama for more than a half century.

What will you do?

Please, vote "yes" on Sept. 9 and spend some time every day encouraging others to do the same.

If not now, when?

If not this, what?

The answers speak for themselves.

This is our moment.

It is our future.

Margaret Garner is an assistant professor of family medicine and director of nutrition education and services at Capstone Medical Center at The University of Alabama. She serves as chair of the Higher Education Partnership.

The Star-News also shares Garner's view of tax reform and accountability in Alabama.