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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

'George W. Bush giveth, Bob Riley taketh away'

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley:
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley: "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.'"

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Bob Riley

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- American Idol Ruben Studdard supports it. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey does not.

Gov. Bob Riley is pushing hard for it. His former labor secretary, Charles Bishop, resigned over it and prays for its demise.

We're speaking, of course, of the $1.2 billion tax referendum that is to meet its fate today in Alabama, a ballot question on which Riley has staked considerable capital in order to close a $675 million budget gap and fix the state's last-in-the-nation schools.

Now, before you yawn at the notion of a 700-word essay on tax referenda, consider this: Once voted the House's most conservative member, Riley has joined a growing number of GOP governors in swing states, from Georgia to Nevada, who are pushing mammoth tax hikes as a way to cover gaping budget shortfalls -- gaps they blame, in part, on cuts by the feds (read: George W. Bush).

Is it too far-fetched to call Riley a trendy, anti-Bush liberal? Of course it is. But the temptation grows when you realize who's backing him: teachers' unions and black clergy.

Polls show that Riley is also poised today to become a big loser. His referendum, staunchly opposed by an organized and well-funded coalition led by his party, is spiraling toward a double-digit defeat. A respectable poll released Sunday showed Republicans and Democrats oppose it by similar margins.

We'll let Alabama debate the merits of the referendum, their tax rates and how to best address their education-funding crisis (they ranked 50th last year in per-pupil spending nationwide).

We choose to focus instead on the state of the national GOP, which apparently has little room for comrades who stray too far from their party's prized anti-tax platform.

Consider, for example, the not-too-subtle remarks by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. He, we believe, opposes the referendum.

"In the good ol' days in Great Britain, they would chop the heads off traitors, stick them on spikes and hang them on Traitors Gate, so that everyone would see the guy's head on the spike as they drove into town," Norquist told the Grind.

"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," Norquist added. "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 try to steal a billion dollars from their people."

Riley does have his bedfellows, strange though they may seem. The governor has campaigned with leaders of the state's teachers' union and Studdard, an African-American and self-described liberal who grew up in Alabama and has performed free "Vote Yes" concerts in Mobile and Birmingham.

Riley has suffered bumper stickers that read, "George W. Bush giveth, Bob Riley taketh away." He's been insulted by visits from old friend Dick Armey, co-chairman of the anti-tax Citizens for a Sound Economy, who traveled to Birmingham Thursday to campaign against the ballot measure.

'I'm as conservative as I've ever been," Riley said Sunday night in a televised statewide debate on the referendum. "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.'"

Bob Riley presents Ruben Studdard with a T-shirt a Studdard's Mobile performance in support of the referendum.
Bob Riley presents Ruben Studdard with a T-shirt a Studdard's Mobile performance in support of the referendum.

Win or lose, Riley, who proudly once said his first House term "made me the most partisan person on Capitol Hill," will spend Wednesday huddling with fellow Republican leaders, trying to mend fences and rebuild bridges. He'll need those fences and bridges -- in no small part to avoid a primary challenge in 2006.

"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 Republican Chairman Marty Connors. "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."

Democrats debate, you decide

All nine '04 Dem presidential nomination candidates plan to face off this evening in the first of two debates jointly sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Tonight's 90-minute forum, the second '04 Dem debate in a week, gets underway at 8 p.m. EDT in the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

The next Fox-Black Caucus debate, in which all nine Democrats have also pledged to participate, is scheduled to take place October 26 in Detroit.

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