I really am on a break (no, really!), but I see that Jim Antle has lately been taking some heat from one of his colleagues at AmSpec for what was basically a throwaway line about Alabama Gov. Riley in his article on Huckabee and I wanted to say a few words about this. Following some back and forth over Riley, Quin Hillyer takes exception to Jim’s characterisation of Riley’s attempted tax hike of ’03 and his description of the justification given for it. Mr. Hillyer claimed that an appeal to the New Testament played a small role in Gov. Riley’s arguments for the tax hike and that the changes did not lead to “redistributive taxation.” That would seem to be contradicted by this 2003 report from RNS:
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a conservative Republican and Southern Baptist, has proposed a $1.2 billion tax package that raises taxes on the wealthiest residents and businesses and cuts taxes on poor families. Riley argues that he has a moral obligation to do so, said David Azbell, the governor’s press secretary.
“Gov. Riley has said many times that there are three things he has found in reading the New Testament,” Azbell said. “We are to love God, love our neighbor and take care of the poorest of the poor.”
Azbell said that the tax plan helps make “an immoral tax system moral.” He notes that in Alabama, a family of four that makes as little as $4,600 a year still has to pay income taxes. In neighboring Mississippi, that figure is $19,000. “I just don’t think you can find a justification in the New Testament for taxing a family that makes $4,600 a year,” he said.
Riley’s plan, which fills a $675 million shortfall in Alabama’s budget and provides new money for education and other state services, passed the state legislature in June. It now faces a Sept. 9 referendum. Azbell said that Alabama’s churches will play a key role in getting the tax package approved.
There are perfectly good arguments for making a tax system “less regressive,” and Alabama’s tax structure does seem to have been unusually regressive, but to make it less regressive is, by definition, to make it more progressive and to accept the assumption of redistributionists that wealthier members of society should pay a relatively higher proportion in taxes. Once you grant this assumption, there are only pragmatic objections left to the levels at which you can progressively tax wealthier members of society. In principle, you have accepted the justice of redistributive taxation, and it is redistributive, since most of the tax revenues will be going for services that disproportionately benefit the poor.
This plan would certainly seem to bear many of the hallmarks of something akin to a “soak the rich” approach to tax policy. It would also appear that Gov. Riley himself and his press secretary were quite pleased to make this a question of Christian morality and social justice and did not make this justification incidental to their argument in favour of the plan. Is one bad budget plan reason enough to write off Gov. Riley? Obviously not. Still, it hardly seems credible to deny that the budget plan was poorly conceived when viewed from the perspective of most conservatives.
Incidentally, it might not be a selling point to conservatives around the country that Bill Pryor supported Riley’s plan, since Pryor was one of the ones who (with the blessing of the White House) stuck the knives in the back of former Justice Moore during the Ten Commandments controversy. If Bill Pryor is vouching for someone’s conservative credentials, I would consider that a mark against that person, rather than a reason to be confident about him.