An Alabama Story -- Susan Pace Hamill,
Governor O'Reilly and the Alabama Voters

Wyn Achenbaum

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, November-December 2004]

Three panelists spoke on the subject of Georgist Values, Christian Economics at the Council of Georgist Organizations conference; July 23, 2004 in Albuquerque.

Some of you will know this story because you live in Alabama. Some of you will know this story because Alanna related it beautifully in Groundswell (Sept.-Oct. 2003). But, like many inspiring stories, it is worth telling another time. I only know it from what I've read online. I've watched some of its ripples extend into other states. And I was saddened to hear that Alabama's voters failed to make the connections between their professed Christian faith and an issue of political economy necessary to make that faith real in their state.

And in this election year where red and blue states and cultures inspire so much talk, the clash of deeply held values of tax conservatism and Christian belief represented may be a bellwether of a piece of culture clash and perhaps cognitive dissonance to come.

Some of you will know this story, because it is not the first time an eloquent writer and speaker has made a strong case for a reform which would enhance economic justice, and the ideas have failed to impress enough people to change the status quo. Some of you here have written eloquently about Jim Crow taxes -- sales taxes and income taxes which place the burden of funding government spending squarely on the backs of the poor.

Alabama is a state where most people profess a strong belief in Christianity. It is, after all, the same state whose other big news story last year was the judge who insisted on a Ten Commandments monument in his courtroom, and got major community support.

Now let's look at Susan Pace Hamill's story. An NYU-trained tax expert, Ms Hamill had spent part of her career creating tax shelters for New York law firms, and as an attorney for the IRS. Interestingly, one of her other areas of interest is partnership law and liabilities, which those of you who have read David Cay Johnston's recent book Perfectly Legal will recognize as a factor he cites as an important recent change which effects the kinds of opinions accountants and lawyers are willing to issue, for a fee. In the mid 90's, Hamill began teaching law at the University of Alabama. A self-described mainline Methodist and "pro-business moderate," early in this decade, she took a sabbatical from teaching to earn a two-year Masters of Theological Studies degree at Beeson Divinity School of (Baptist) Samford University in Birmingham. A news story about the low starting point of Alabama's income taxes caught her attention.

In the context of her Divinity School studies, she began examining how Alabama's tax structure related to Judeo-Christian ethics. Beeson is an extremely conservative Baptist institution, with faculty from many traditions. Both she and they were transformed by her studies. From the combining of her law school and tax connections and research skills, and their grounding in the most conservatively construed Biblical scholarship, came a consensus that her thesis had to be written on Alabama's tax code in the context of Judeo-Christian ethics. What resulted is this study, available on-line and now in book form. She describes it this way:

"I built a case on the tax side with 10 witnesses and DNA. I mean, I have indicted big timber with statistics: I put together my own study with statistics that prove that group pays less than two percent of the property tax -- meager as it is -- despite owning 71 percent of the land. That is an indictment. Then we connect those property tax trends with the most horrible of the horriblest schools in the state. Then the theology -- over 100 biblical commentaries of the finest evangelicals." Hamill makes her argument not from a Georgist perspective -- I've not yet seen any sign that she has "seen the cat" -- but from a revenue sufficiency perspective in the context of Judeo-Christian ethics and what Alabama has to work with. In many parts of Alabama, the existing tax bases as they are currently conceived -- that is, ignoring timber lands and agricultural property -- are just not sufficient to provide revenue to educate the children of those counties. She makes her case that we owe it to "the least of these" -- Alabama's children -- to make sure they have an opportunity to better themselves.

She says, "I've come up with two fundamental principles that are relevant here." One is, "Thou shalt not oppress the poor," and "Thou shalt make sure that the poor enjoy at least a minimum opportunity to better their situation".

She made the moral link to Judeo-Christian values and quantified the link betweeen big timber and school finance.

There are some other interesting players in this story, of course -- first, the new Republican governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, previously one of the most conservative members of Newt Gingrich's Congress. As governor, he found himself facing a $675 million budget shortfall, and saw a need to increase taxes by $1.2 billion. But he was also an active Southern Baptist layman. "When I read the New Testament, there are three things we're asked to do. That's love God, love each other, and take care of the least among us."

The libertarian-leaning state finance director named Drayton Nabers, was quoted as follows:

"Before you talk about taxes, you've got to talk about social justice and what the role of government should be with respect to achieving social justice," Nabers said. "My concept of justice relates to the libertarian ideal: freeing all people under God to be all they can possibly be." [Divine Right] Nabers was drawing on the work of Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and a favorite philosopher of the right.

The Christian Coalition of Alabama, however, was allied with the farmers and the timber industry, and it was their position that it is not government's job to take care of the poor, but rather the responsibility of the churches. And they sought to undermine Hamill's bible-studies credibility by citing her signature on a pro-choice statement by law school faculty some years earlier.

And Governor Riley had upset a large segment of black voters by opposing a bill in the legislature that would have restored voting rights to felons. As a Republican strategist described it, "We've got a conservative evangelical Christian Republican governor, trying to get a massive turnout of black voters to pass a tax increase so he can raise taxes on Republican constituents."

The national Christian Coalition came in on the side of Governor Riley's reform.

Most of you know the upshot of the September 2003 vote: the voters turned the tax reform proposal down 2:1. But the amount of media attention and denominational attention focused on this story, and some editorials in other states suggesting that their tax codes are in serious need of improvement in this light, is encouraging. We live in interesting times.