By Ned Cantwell
New Mexico’s food tax, this column has harped, is not fair. It places more of a burden on the poor than it does on the rich, and that is bad policy.
Since the state of New Mexico needs this revenue to exist, it is argued, the food tax cannot be eliminated.
Sure it can. The Legislature finds it easy enough to impose taxes. It can eliminate taxes. Here’s how: Keep the food tax on the books. Return to every family under a certain income level the amount they paid in food tax. Finance it with higher taxes on cigarettes and booze. The legislature that taketh away can also giveth back.
Look closely at what is happening in Alabama. Conservatives there elected a right wing Republican named Bob Riley, who they thought would be a poster boy for their cause. Riley has shocked and enraged them by initiating policy that demonstrates he has a strong social conscience.
Specifically, the Alabama governor authored a tax reform plan that shifts much of the state’s tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations. A New York Times story says the state’s “tax system has long been brutally weighted against the least fortunate. … Alabamans with incomes under $13,000 pay 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while those who make over $229,000 pay just 4.1 percent.”
Gov. Riley’s tax reform will not become law unless ratified by the voters in September. The debate is tricky, likely explosive. Riley has turned the table on those who elected him, including the religious right, by couching his arguments in biblical teachings. Should Christians oppress the poor, he wonders?
Mixing religion and politics is nothing new in Alabama, of course. In early June, for example, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was in federal court defending his decision to install a rendering of the Ten Commandments in the state’s main judicial building.
Gov. Riley, though, breaks ground by taking a different tact. According to the Times, he says, “I’ve spent a lot of time studying the New Testament and it has three philosophies: love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you. I don’t think anyone can justify putting an income tax on someone who makes $4,600 a year.”
Look for this squabble to get hotter than a Birmingham summer. The Christian Coalition of Alabama has yet to weigh in on the September vote, but generally opposes the tax reform plan’s increases.
Gov. Riley is not alone in his fight. Many powerful, rich business leaders see his plan as the road map to better schools and thereby enhanced economic development. They plan to spend millions of dollars on TV ads to support the governor’s take-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor approach.
That’s Alabama. This is New Mexico. So when it comes to crucial issues such as our food tax penalizing the poor, and our refusal to pass a law that makes it mandatory for parents to be notified before a teen girl can get an abortion, should I ask the question?
Dare I ask the question? Oh, why not?
How would Jesus vote?
Ned Cantwell of Ruidoso is a retired newspaper publisher and member of the New Mexico Press Association Hall of Fame. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org