CHARLIE MITCHELL: Mississippi should note Alabama's plight

Their governor says coming cuts may free 5,000 prison inmates, eject hundreds of nursing home residents onto the streets and end availability of medicines the mentally ill need to remain stable.

And Alabamans said they don't care.

Actually, they just said they're fed up.

“If the money they have now was spent wisely, we wouldn't need this,” is how 74-year-old retired state worker Adie Ward termed the situation for The Associated Press.

Alabama's governor is Bob Riley, a Republican of all things. On Sept. 9, voters there rejected by a 2-1 margin a realignment of taxes of all types that would have netted $1.2 billion per year more for the state to offset an existing $675 million deficit.

Afterward, Riley went to the microphones to warn of the dire consequences that will flow from the hard-headedness taxpayers showed.

As a rule, Mississippi doesn't have a lot in common with states to the north, south and east – but with elections and a reported $600 million “shortfall” looming here, the Alabama situation is at least worth noting.

“I just think he took the wrong approach,” is what Haley Barbour, the GOP nominee in Mississippi said about Riley – well before the vote.

Barbour was among many Republicans who said Alabama's governor hadn't done enough to control spending before resorting to a new regimen of taxation. And Barbour is clear that he believes Mississippi now has plenty of income to support the expenses government faces. He says he'll work, if elected, against any tax increases.

Democrat Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, seeking re-election, has sought refuge by listing for voters the roster of states that have raised taxes while Mississippi has not. He says his leadership here during a period of national recession has kept Mississippi rates level.

Musgrove, too, has insisted he will not support any tax rate increases if chosen on Nov. 4 for a second term. Interestingly, though, as a candidate four years ago, a call for “overhaul” of Mississippi's various taxes was part of Musgrove's stump speech, and that's what Riley's rejected plan proposed to do.

The strategy in Alabama was to change the mix, to rebalance the load so to speak. The idea was to avoid hitting any single sector too hard.

For example, one plank in the plan was to raise the sales tax on cars and trucks from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. Another was to end the deduction individuals and corporations can claim for the federal taxes they pay. A third was to double the sales tax on vehicle leases to 3 percent and a fourth was to create a 4 percent sales tax on labor for repair and installation services.

Now, Mississippi could have some problems in this arena, given that the sales tax on car and truck purchases and lease payments is already 5 percent, deduction of federal income taxes is not allowed on Mississippi income tax returns – and almost all labor services are already taxed at 7 percent.

The foregoing is not meant to say Mississippi's structure can't be tweaked – but it should illustrate that we have higher taxes across a broader spectrum than most states already, meaning any changes here would be at least as painful as those Alabama voters shot down – and shot down definitively.

And, of course, there's another difference. In Mississippi, unless there's a constitutional provision involved, the Legislature has near absolute control on what to tax and how much to tax it. There would be no public vote on a tax makeover if enacted in Mississippi.

But the Alabama balloting does show a resounding “enough” from the people. Even though their state has not seen an income surge from lottery or casino revenue as others have, Alabama voters have said, “We don't have an income problem. We have a spending problem.”

The vote is sure to bolster the positions Barbour and Musgrove are taking on the campaign trail – but after the election comes January and the 2004 legislative session and the state's bills.

Riley is doing the fear thing, blaming voters and insisting they've unleashed horrors on themselves.

It's a theme that could be repeated here in a matter of months – unless lawmakers are hearing what our neighbors in Alabama are saying.

Charlie Mitchell is managing editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS, 39182, or e-mail post@vicksburg.com.