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Groups lining up on both sides of tax plan

By Staff
Laura Whittington, BNI News Service
Several groups have formed since the announcement of Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2-billion tax and reform package, and all say they have one thing in mind
– Alabama's future.
Both sides say they want what's best for the state. The two sides disagree, however, on what that is.
The two most prominent groups are the Alabama Partnership for Progress and the Tax Accountability Coalition. The difference is simple: the partnership supports the tax plan and the coalition doesn't.
Although the two organizations have different views, they both have an increasing membership and a short time, a little less than a month, to accomplish their goals.
"We have a very aggressive plan in place," said Marty Sullivan, spokesperson for the partnership. "You will begin seeing an awful lot of advertising, so we can put the plan in front of the people."
The plan, which couples tax increases with accountability and reform, will be decided during a Sept. 9 statewide referendum.
The coalition has already begun its advertising campaign. Bob Gambucurta, a spokesperson for the coalition, said they also are aggressively getting the word out.
"We want excellence in education, but we need to reform the system before we increase taxes," he said. "They have the cart in front of the horse. The people want accountability first, then taxes."
But all the bickering could sour Alabamians on heading to the polls Sept. 9.
Bob Russell, president of the Alabama Public Policy Foundation, said with all the rhetoric coming from both sides, it would be difficult for voters to make a sound decision. He says his group hopes to serve as an in-between.
"We want to make sure the will of the people, whatever that is, carries the day on Sept. 9," he said. "If proponents of the tax hike convince a majority of voters to approve the $1.2-billion tax increase, that is fine. If opponents convince a majority, that is fine. The scenario we do not want is to have the issue decided because of confusion in the Sept. 9 ballot wording."
(Editor's note: A copy of Riley's Amendment One plan is in today's legal section of the Enquirer.)
A recent poll conducted by the Alabama Education Association indicates most don't know much about the plan. However, that hasn't stopped them from taking a side. According to the poll, 30 percent were in favor of the plan and 51 percent were against. Nineteen percent was undecided.
A diverse group
Those for and against the plan make up a diverse group. The Partnership for Progress has more than 65 members from the AEA to the Business Council of Alabama.
The tax coalition also has a large, growing membership that is just as diverse.
"Our membership is made-up of working families, farmers and small-business owners. Really it's all walks of life," Gambacurta said. "We've banded together to fight the biggest tax increase in state history."
Sullivan said her organization is just as unique in that it has groups and organizations together on an issue. The groups are some that usually don't agree, she said.
"This plan is bringing people from every walk of life under the same tent," she said. "It's a broad and diverse coalition that consists now of more than 65 organizations from across the state."
The rhetoric
Still, the effectiveness of the tax plan is up for debate with both sides holding down their respective corners.
Sullivan said the partnership favors the plan for its fairness, and Gambacurta said the coalition is against it because it's not fair.
He added that even though the plan touts accountability, it's not the kind of accountability in state government that citizens deserve.
Sullivan disagrees.
She said the plan does exactly what Riley has always promised, which she sites as fairness, the ability to pay and reform in the tax structure.
She said the plan does all those things still keeping Alabama with the lowest tax structure in the nation.
"The plan is structured around the concept of fairness," Sullivan said. "And it still keeps Alabama among the lowest in the nation to maintain a competitive advantage."
Gambacurta said the governor's plan is asking for too much and not promising enough. He said the coalition questions why the state needs $1.2 billion to make-up for a $675-million budget shortfall.
Under Riley's plan, all new money would first go to fill the projected budget shortfall. The rest would be unearmarked and placed in a new fund called the Alabama Excellence Fund. Riley said once budget shortfalls were filled, the additional money would be used to fund programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Math, Science and Technology Initiative and to provide free public college in the state to students who meet certain criteria.
"This really deals with accountability," Gambacurta said. "We're hearing from people all over Alabama – white, black, young, old – they don't trust Montgomery politicians. Before they approve a tax increase, they want some kind of guarantee that this money is going to get to education, to build prisons and hire more state troopers."
The partnership said there are guarantees – guarantees that the plan will move Alabama forward.
Countdown to the referendum
With just under a month before the Sept. 9 referendum, both groups are buying advertising slots and arranging to speak to whoever will listen.
"This is a grassroots campaign," Sullivan said. "With 65 partners, you can image that we have a lot of humans working to get the message out, and you'll be seeing more and more of us in the next 35 days."
With the state already seeing a substantial flow of information from each group, Gambacurta said they are just getting started.
"We've formed a speakers' bureau to speak to different groups," he said. "We've been on the radio and TV," he said. "We've got a rapidly growing network of volunteers across the state getting yard signs."