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Alabama votes on $1.2 billion tax hike

Riley looks out the door of the Hi Pine Volunteer Fire Department as he waits for his wife, Patsy, after the two cast their ballots.
Riley looks out the door of the Hi Pine Volunteer Fire Department as he waits for his wife, Patsy, after the two cast their ballots.

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(CNN) -- Alabama voters went to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to approve $1.2 billion in new taxes proposed by conservative Republican Gov. Bob Riley.

Riley, a former congressman who narrowly won election last November, has pushed the sweeping plan as a way to improve the state's woeful education system and overhaul an antiquated tax structure that he thinks puts too much of a burden on lower-income residents.

Pre-election polls showed the plan will likely be defeated. Riley's own party opposes the plan, while many Democrats support it.

Without the tax increase, Riley warned, the state will have to lay off teachers, cancel school extracurricular activities, free felons from state prisons and cut health care for thousands of seniors to close a $675 million budget gap.

Most of the rest of the new money would go into education programs in a state that last year ranked 50th in spending per pupil.

"You must now decide what kind of state you want for yourself, your children and your grandchildren," Riley told Alabamians in a speech pitching his plan. "We can take the very best in Alabama and make it better and change state government forever."

But the state Republican Party voted to oppose the plan, which would raise taxes almost twice as much as the budget shortfall.

Angry conservatives have been sporting bumper stickers saying, "George W. Bush giveth, Bob Riley taketh away" -- and vowing to make Riley a one-term governor.

"No one's life is a complete waste. Some of us serve as bad examples. And Governor Riley is going to serve as a bad example," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

"Years from now, little baby Republican governors will be told scary stories late at night, around the campfire, about the sad fate of governors like Riley who steal a billion dollars from their people."

But at a debate on the referendum Sunday night Riley -- who was once voted the House's most conservative member -- defended his credentials.

"I'm as conservative as I've ever been," he said. "But I am in the same position that Ronald Reagan was as governor of California. When he was asked why he raised taxes, he said, 'I had no choice.'"

Riley is one of a number of GOP governors who have taken the uncomfortable position of supporting major tax increases to deal with state fiscal crises. Like Riley, Republican governors in Nevada and Georgia have come under heavy fire for pushing higher taxes.

Rebuffed by his own base, Riley turned to unlikely allies for support. He campaigned with representatives of the state's teachers union and made appeals to black Democrats. American Idol winner Reuben Studdard, from Birmingham, has performed free "Vote Yes" concerts.

Win or lose, Riley was scheduled to spend Wednesday meeting with state Republican leaders trying to mend fences.

"The governor feels a little betrayed by his party. But, hey, the party feels betrayed by the governor for going so completely off the reservation and never consulting with any of us to do it," said state GOP Chairman Marty Conners.

"There's some patching up to do, starting Wednesday. We have to start rebuilding the base for him, because he's done a lot of damage to it."

Polls close at 7 p.m. (8 p.m. EDT).

CNN Political Editor John Mercurio contributed to this report.


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