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Riley has genuine desire to help state

Governor Bob Riley brought his message for tax reform to Andalusia Friday afternoon, addressing members of the public at the Andalusia Civitan club's weekly meeting.

As Riley talked about his plans for reforming Alabama, it was clear to all that he knows more about the tax package than anyone else. What may not have been as clear was the fact that Gov. Riley whole-heartedly believes in this package and the positive things that will come from its passage.

In an exclusive interview with the Star-News following his address to the Civitan club, that fact was revealed.

Speaking openly and candidly, Riley expressed his hopes for Alabama and what it feels like to have so many people fighting against him.

"I don't think you'll have another opportunity in my lifetime (to initiate this type of change)," Gov. Riley said. "This will become the poster child for why you should never try. When I got my administration together we all had it worked out what we wanted to do for this state - just forget about politics or reelection. Just go do it. I'm not too sure we're going to have an administration like my guys. They're not political. They don't want to stay in politics. They know how important it is to deal with an educated work force. These are the brightest business people in the state. Those guys give me a lot of moral fortitude. They're saying 'Let's get in here and do it'."

And that's what Gov. Riley is wanting to do Š get in there and work.

But, all the political battling over his plan is taking its toll.

Hearing him speak about the plan, he has it down to a science - but the look in his eye and the tone in his voice shows sincerity.

"We were able to give my kids a pretty good education in public schools," he said talking about his children's education in the rural Clay County school system. But, he wants a better education for his grandkids - and the other children of Alabama. "Last year, they didn't offer a foreign language, physics, advanced math - because there wasn't enough kids to take it. We can put a system in place where one person in Birmingham can teach 500 kids all over the state. We can literally offer them just a myriad of options that they would never otherwise have in their have unless they went to school in Vestavia Hills or someplace like that."

The children and education - that's the focus and the heart of this plan. Of course, the economic factors are part of it as well, but Riley is quick to point out that with a good education, the economy increases.

"If I hadn't met this Bob Etheridge (from North Carolina) Š listened to him for six years in Congress tell me you can transform your state through education Š and he's absolutely right. You can look up there today at what they're doing. We're going to get more and more aggressive. We can't keep paying a quarter of a billion dollars to get a Hyundai in here, or $280 million to get a Honda in here. North Carolina gets them, and they don't pay a dime."

It's because of their strong educational system, which went from being tied at 48 with Alabama just a few years ago, to being the fourth best in the nation in just five years.

But, when he has to fight to get his message across because of what some call vicious anti-tax reform ads that are filling the airwaves with misconceptions about the tax package.

"It wouldn't be hard to educate everyone about the tax package if it weren't for my opponents," Riley said. "It's one thing to run a tough campaign, but what they're doing today - is absolutely robbery. You've got the competing 30 second commercials. Mine says people are gonna get a tax break and improve education. Theirs' says it's not going to education and you're gonna have to pay 200 – 300 percent more. It's just a lie."

And the toll the tax fight is taking on Gov. Riley is even greater when you consider what obstacles will have to be dealt with in case the referendum fails. Although Fiscal Year 2004 will be maintained - at least at current levels - the fact that the governor has to develop a budget for Fiscal Year 2005 in February with the possibility of not having the additional revenue to maintain even level standards - well, that's not something that he wants to think about, but it's something he has to face.

"My father-in-law is a druggist. My niece is a druggist now, and she said people come in everyday and say 'Give me half my of my prescription. I'll take two pills instead of four. I'll take it every other day. We're charging those people income tax. That's just wrong."

And it could be worse Š trial courts halting, state trooper forces shrinking, some school systems actually closing Š but it doesn't have to be - and that's the message Riley is trying to get across to Alabama's citizens - despite the political bickering.

From simply talking and listening to the sincerity in his voice and the enthusiasm with which he talks about his hopes for Alabama - one understands - Bob Riley wants to help Alabama move to the top of the nation. He knows the people have the drive and the spirit. And he wants to help be a part of that move - no matter the risk to his political career.