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Coalition Pushing Tax, Education Reforms in Ala. Crumbling

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A delicate coalition in Alabama that recommended nearly $500 million in tax- and education-reform measures has begun to crumble in response to cuts in the legislative package made by the Senate.

In addition, Gov. Guy Hunt, who appointed the task force that developed the original proposal, has said he would veto the accountability and school-funding package if it came to him in the form it was in early last week.

The original plan combined tax changes aimed at generating almost $500 million in new state revenue with school reforms in such areas as teacher tenure.

The package, which passed the House last month with task-force support shaken but intact, underwent significant amendments and deletions in the Senate Taxation and Finance Committee. It was facing still other changes last week on the Senate floor. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

Edgy supporters of the reform legislation stood by last week awaiting word on the package's latest form, with a number ready to withdraw their backing if it was altered too much.

As other reformers pointed out, a House-Senate conference committee could still come up with a final version of the package that was acceptable to coalition members.

Nevertheless, "It'll take something close to a miracle ... for everyone to stay hitched,'' said Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards and a task-force member.

The chairman of the task force, Tom Carruthers, said in a statement that the panel would not endorse "a package that does not measure up to the most urgent requirements for reform, accountability, and revenue.''

One of the package's primary backers, A Plus: The Coalition for Better Education, which has about 4,000 members statewide, formally withdrew its support April 10. Leaders of the group cited erosion by the Senate panel of the coalition's tax proposals, including decisions by senators to reduce the proposed sales-tax increase on cars and to provide a complete exemption from the state income tax for retirees, regardless of annual income.

Revenue Losses Scored

It was primarily the trimming of taxes--and by extension, revenue for education measures--by the Senate panel that angered and worried supporters of reform. Although major reforms to K-12 education remain intact, a spokesman for A Plus said higher-education reform had been "almost gutted completely.''

"We are outraged and bitterly disappointed by the incredibly irresponsible behavior of the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee,'' Bill Smith, chairman of A Plus, said in a statement.

"The majority of [the Senate panel members have ignored the current education crisis and allowed lobbyists to chip away at much-needed revenue provisions of this package, by giving favorable tax treatment to special interests,'' Mr. Smith charged.

The bill approved by the House was expected to bring in about $409 million in new revenue. But the Senate committee approved a provision making food exempt from the 4 percent state sales tax by 1996--a move that would have gutted the package by removing $300 million to $350 million a year.

Although the committee subsequently removed the food-tax exemption, the full Senate reinstated it early last week, while also raising personal- and corporate-income-tax rates higher than the task force had proposed to compensate for the loss.

If the package ends up with only about $100 million in new revenue for education, Ms. Sims-deGraffenried said, that is "just not strong enough to get out and brag we've solved education's problems.''

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