I have become fairly cynical about New Year’s resolutions—at least as they pertain to me. Too many broken promises, too many false starts. Now instead of resolutions I make a New Year’s wish list. Like, I wish I would exercise more, and so on.
As it turns out, individuals are not the only ones with resolution issues. Five years ago nearly all of the major religious denominations in Alabama passed resolutions calling for tax reform in our state. Alabama Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, joined together in an effort to persuade legislators to fix our tragically broken tax system and bring fairness to the way we fund government.
And there was some effort to keep the resolutions. The Amendment One campaign in 2003 was an effort to redress the unfairness in our tax system. But it was too much information presented too quickly. Alabamians did not have enough time to sort through all the different pieces of the tax reform proposal. Opponents of the measure were able to use the complexity of the issues to cloud the truth and the effort was soundly defeated.
Particularly frustrating in the defeat was the obvious absence of support from the faith community—you know, the resolved ones. I guess we were not as resolved as our resolutions may have made it seem.
Meanwhile, nothing has changed. Our income tax system continues to be just as cruel and unfair as ever. A family of four earning as little as $4,600 is still subject to state income tax.
We continue to rely heavily on sales tax. The combined effect of these two taxes results in the lower 20 percent of wage earners in Alabama being forced to pay nearly 12 percent of their total income in state and local taxes. And while it is too much to say that this is what creates poverty in Alabama, it is safe to say it certainly doesn’t help.
Of course, the way out of poverty is through education which brings us to property tax. Property tax is one of the main funding sources for public schools in our state. Property taxes are so low in Alabama that we could double them and still be among the lowest in the nation.
And there are many who celebrate this low tax rate. But what we get for our low taxes is grossly under-funded schools. This is especially true in rural areas where large tracks of corporately owned property are assessed at only pennies on the dollar.
Alabama’s timberland comprises nearly 70 percent of the state’s total land usage. This 70 percent accounts for only 2 percent of the total state property tax revenue. It doesn’t take a math major to see why rural schools are so poor.
I can’t help but remember some words of Jesus. What does it profit us if we gain the whole world but in the process lose our souls? Failing to meet the needs of the poor, the young and the elderly just for the privilege of paying less in taxes may be that very trade off.
At any rate, as we stand at the beginning of another New Year I am working on my wish list. I wish I would exercise more. I also wish our state would find the resolve to institute tax fairness. I wish the faith community would speak the truth to power (again) and then back those words up with action. Resolutions don’t seem to work, so maybe wishing, or hope.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.