Opelika businessman and former state senator John Rice, now president of something called the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government (I didn't make that up), opined in the Opelika-Auburn News this week that the state's most pressing need is for its politicians to stick to the most holy and solemn and unbreakable of Alabama political vows -- which is, of course, never to raise taxes, for any reason whatever, never never never, no matter what, no way, no how, so there, nyah.
If Rice isn't the perfect metaphor for the Alabama body politic, he's a high-resolution snapshot of it.
This is, as it has always been, the thoughtful and enlightened sociopolitical philosophy that has put Alabama in the national leadership spotlight to which it has become accustomed. You don't get to be a pacesetter in things like juvenile malnutrition and packed prisons just by wishing for it.
Back in May, a House committee passed a draft budget that would cover a projected state budget shortfall by taking deep cuts in Medicaid, mental health services, prisons and child welfare. Some of those funds, including Medicaid, involve federal matching money, so the loss is compounded -- a proposed $35 million cut in Medicaid would cost another $70 million from Washington, for a total hit of more than $100 million.
The state Department of Human Resources, which also depends on federal matching funds, might have to cut child care services for as many as 17,000 low-income children. The state's adult day care program would probably be eliminated, putting most of the 400 people it serves into nursing homes on Medicaid. Almost 500 people could lose access to community mental health services, meaning some -- probably many -- would have to be returned to institutional care.
But hey -- it wouldn't raise taxes.
This is not a rant about the Republicans who control the Alabama Legislature, at least not in a partisan context. The people making these cynical, morally repugnant decisions are shallow, shameless low-road political bottom-feeders playing to the lowest common denominator, apparently the only denominator they know. But that same description would fit their Democratic predecessors, who did exactly the same thing for a hundred years. (Some in this bunch ARE their Democratic predecessors.)
More to the point, the loudest voice for simple decency is also that of a Republican -- Gov. Robert Bentley, who like another GOP governor before him, Bob Riley, is obviously clued in to the reality that Just Say No To Taxes is a brain-dead excuse for responsible governing.
Bentley, who made the stunningly commonsensical observation (and I'm paraphrasing here) that "we should live within our means, but first we have to have the means," rejected the legislature's proposed chainsaw massacre of state services.
"This budget is unworkable," he said. "It's irresponsible. It hurts people."
Wait -- stuff like that is supposed to matter?
Bentley's alternative is to generate about $541 million by raising taxes on cars and tobacco, and by reducing or eliminating some of the absurd special-interest exemptions and loopholes and assorted flavors of corporate welfare that have made Alabama's tax code a regressive monstrosity for decades. It's likely that the impact of his proposed tax increases on most Alabamians would be negligible to nil -- especially compared to the pain that would result from cutting essential services for Alabama's neediest citizens.
Sadly, there's no reason to believe the governor's appeal will fall on anything but the usual politically leaden ears. Years ago Bob Riley took his case for education money -- surely as sound an investment in the future as any state can make -- directly to the voters, and got shellacked.
The cry that will be heard the loudest, as always in Alabama, is that of John Rice and Foundations for Limited Government and tea parties and "patriot' groups and the like. When something as feeble and pathetic as not raising taxes is all it takes to win and hold office, we get what we pay for.
Problem is, some pay a lot more dearly than others. And they don't have a vote.