Reform in Alabama?: The Nation's Worst Tax Structure

By Allen Tullos

Vol. 24, No. 3-4, 2002 p. 9

In a state known for Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and Rick Bragg, the most compelling, controversial, widely read, and strategically ignored piece of writing this election year was "An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" by Susan Pace Hamill, professor of la at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. (See page 10 for an excerpt of Hamill's article.)

Challenging the piety of politicians and the priorities of religious leaders in the Heart of Dixie, where nine out of ten residents say they practice some form of Christianity, Professor Hamill warns that "individuals claiming to be part of the People of God can no longer complacently tolerate Alabama's tax structure" which she identified as "the worst in the whole country."

Susan Hamill is the most recent to rail against Alabama's regressive tax system and the antiquated 1901 state constitution which keeps it in place. Over a decade ago, the editorial page writers of the Birmingham News won a Pulitzer for their year-long, relentless hammering at tax reform. Nothing changed. Since then, Washington think tanks and state public policy institutes have hurled their own damning studies at Alabama's inadequate and inequitable ways of generating tax revenue. Governors and legislators come and go. Still nothing has changed.

As the state's rankings in educational opportunity, quality of life, and social welfare consistently remain at or near the national bottom, frustration is building among African-American voters, progressive white Democrats, and even some business interests disgruntled over the shamefully inadequate funding of public education. With her rigorous analysis of Alabama's tax structure wrapped in the prophetic and redemptive rhetoric of Old and New Testaments, Susan Hamill's study may yet provide the catalyst.

"Tax policy," she told a statewide public television audience this fall, "is a lot more boring than Judeo Christian ethics. And in a community made up of people of faith it probably would carry a bit less weight."

Dedicating her tax study to "Alabama's children...the most vulnerable and powerless segment" of the state's population, Hamill and a team of research assistants have painstakingly documented how a combination of income, sales, and property taxes "economically oppresses low income Alabamians and fails to raise sufficient revenues to adequately fund the public schools." The state's income tax, the least fair in the U.S., kicks in well under the poverty line while "greatly favoring higher income taxpayers" with exemptions and deductions. Alabama's regressive sales tax, among the nation's highest and most burdensome to lower income citizens, generates more than 50 percent of revenues. St. Matthew is not pleased.

Hamill's study, published in the Alabama Law Review and readable online (www.law.ua.edu/staff/bio/shamill.html) saves its hottest fire for the state's property tax--the nation's lowest--and its primary beneficiaries, the owners of forest land. While forests occupy more than 70 percent of Alabama's land mass, and timber may well be the state's number one industry, taxes on forest land comprise less than 2 percent of all property tax income. Through their lobbyists' grasp upon the state legislature and by wrapping their industry in popular anti-tax rhetoric, large landowners along with wood, pulp, and paper companies have locked-in the present inequities. The sorry result, concludes Professor Hamill, "fails to meet any reasonable definition of fairness and violates the moral principles of Judeo-Christian Ethics."

Professor Hamill, a United Methodist who devoted a year's sabbatical from law school to researching and writing the tax study as a master's thesis in theology, comes down hard on religious leaders' special responsibility to protect the rights of the poor. "While fully recognizing the supremacy of the secular state in all matters related to governmental power," she insists that Christians must live up to their professed beliefs. She hopes that recent resolutions by Alabama Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians for tax reform that will bring relief and justice to the state's poor are the beginning steps of a necessary groundswell. As for the Christian Coalition, which has powerful base in Alabama and professes to "defend the rights of the poor and marginalized, Hamill points out that its proposals of flat or sales taxes "have the effect of benefiting wealthy families at the expense of middle and lower income families." Instead, she insists, redress for a tax system oppressive to "the least of these" must be the true measure of Christian polity.

Allen Tullos is the editor of Southern Changes and associate professor of American Studies at Emory University.