Governor George Corley Wallace is an extremely gifted and intelligent man, blessed with impressive oratorical skills, memory and instinct, the irreplaceable tools of a master politician. For over a decade he has dominated Alabama as has no other man in its history. He inherited a state in desperate need of positive leadership; unfortunately, his influence has been largely negative.
Wallace was first elected governor in 1962, a time when the people of the South and of Alabama were in turmoil. Southern culture was in the midst of its greatest upheaval since the days of post-Civil War reconstruction. In 1954, the Supreme Court had issued the Brown decision, declaring "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional. One year later the modern civil rights movement had begun in Alabama with the Montgomery bus boycott. Like any group of rational human beings facing dramatic change, Alabamians were anxious and uncertain.
Wallace used his incomparable political talents to capitalize on these insecurities and gain the power of the governorship. Under his name or under that of his late first wife, Lurleen, he has served at the helm of the state for almost 11 of the past 13 years. During such long tenure, one would expect the state to have been led to great heights by a man of Wallace's abilities. He has, it must be said, done some good things for our state in the areas of high-way construction and medical schools. However, he has failed to lead us to significant advancement on almost every other front.
Throughout his political career, Wallace has portrayed himself as a responsible and prudent administrator in areas of government finance. He is famous for his tirades against the evils of "big government," lecturing on the cost of maintaining the growing federal bureaucracy. Consistently critical of deficit spending policies of the federal government, the governor has been a strong advocate of balanced budgets. He laments the plight of the working people of America, calling for tax reform to reduce the burden on the average citizen.
So it might come as a surprise to many to learn that according to 1974 census bureau reports, total government expenditures in Alabama since Wallace took office in 1962 have risen 356.9 per cent, over twice as much as the federal budget increase. In those same years the state debt rose by over 200 per cent, almost twice the national average.
Though the overall level of taxation has remained low during this era, the burden has been shifted even more to the backs of the working people, the average citizens whom Wallace is so fond of mentioning. Wealthy individuals and corporations contribute an even smaller percentage of the total state revenue than they did in 1963. In fact, according to Alabama Attorney General William J. Baxley, Alabama now has the "most regressive tax structure in the country."
If one looks at the property taxes collected by the state, one finds that Alabama has one of the highest property tax rates in the nation. A University of Alabama business school study found that 2.6 per cent of the total tax collections of the state in 1974 came from property taxes, as opposed to a national average of 1.8 per cent. This overutilization of the property tax is more shocking when one learns that the system is applied in an inequitable manner. A huge percentage of the land in Alabama is held by paper companies, which use the land to grow timber. Property tax assessment of the land is based on the last selling price of the land. Since the paper companies have owned much of their land for decades, the companies often pay only a few pennies an acre on extremely valuable land. In Montgomery County, for example, large tracts of land were taxed at $0.10 an acre in 1975, while nearby parcels were being sold for several thousand dollars per acre.
To hear the Wallace campaign rhetoric, one would think he had paved with gold the streets of Alabama's working class neighborhoods. Upon examining Wallace's record, however, one realizes that unfortunately those streets are merely potted asphalt. According to the director of the AFL-CIO committee on political education, "as a labor supporter, Wallace's poor posture is second to none."
Until 1974 the Alabama Labor Council, the state's collective labor organization, had never endorsed Wallace for a state-wide political office. The council endorsed Wallace in 1974 in consideration of his promise that he would sign a bill repealing the state's "right-to-work" law if it were approved by the state legislature. Last year the repeal barely failed to pass the state's house of representatives. Many labor leaders believe that the governor used his influence to defeat the bill.
According to figures released by the AFL-CIO last year, Alabama has some of the worst workmen's compensation and unemployment insurance laws in the country. It was one of only five states limiting the time a worker injured on the job could take to obtain medical treatment and one of only seven states to limit the amount of money spent for such treatment.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Wallace has failed to bring in sufficient industry to keep pace with the growth in jobs and earnings in surrounding states. He has steadily refused to aid workers when they have organized to try to gain better working conditions from their employers. Meanwhile, he has allowed Alabama's social services, from education to health care to prisons, to remain as some of the worst in the country.
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The record of George Wallace has gone unchallenged for too long. While the national spotlight has focused on him, his record has escaped a detailed objective examination.
We members of the Alabama Political Research Group are compiling data and analysis to evidence the inadequacies of Wallace's leadership with the hope of transmitting our message to the American voters. We have been advised not only that this project is futile, but also that it will jeopardize our personal futures in Alabama. Even so, we feel it is high time for Alabamians to stand up and tell America how little Wallace has done for our state.
Joe R. Whatley Jr. '75 and Richard P. Woods are law students at the University of Alabama and coordinators of the Alabama Political Research Group, an organization which collects and publishes information about the state's political and governmental affairs.