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-of good feelino cordial neighborslin arable among a reunited, harmonious, and contented citizenship
I trust and believe that we are entering upon the enjoyment of that desirable condition for which the patriotic heart of the great Houston longed, when he exclaimed: "The State needs rest.” With the material blessings necessary to the wants, the comfort, and even the luxury of humanity, stored away by a loving father's hand in the hills and valleys and prairies of this great Commonwealth, with a prodi. gality as limitless as human desire and boundless as divine love, it will be our fault if disconteni aud disquietude should prevail amongst us as a people. I need not remind you that the happiness of a whole people will be largely contributed to by the enactment and execution of legislation that is wise, just and conservative.
For thirty-five years past, owing to the impoverished condition of the south, caused by the great civil war, the subject of taxation has engaged the attention of the law-makers more earnestly and absorbingly than any other. That our revenue laws are still far from perfect is manifest from the constant dread and apprehension of a deficit in the treasury. How to reise sufficient revenue properly to administer the affairs of State with as little inconvenience and annoyance as possible to the tax-payer, has been the uppermost problem in the minds of conservative, thoughtful legislators, at each recurring session of the general assembly, for a great many years past. The hope to have revenue laws perfectly free from inequality and just criticism is a hope that never has, and, possibly, never will be fully realized. The patriotic effort to solve this problem has caused frequent changes in the revenue laws of the State, which changes are made with such rapidity, that often the law is amended or repealed before its merits or defects are demonstrated by experience.
As has been well said, “Self-taxation is the foundation of English freedom." Alabama enjoys that boon: of free men to-day, but the great mass of the citizens of this commonwealth honestly desire a sufficiency of taxation to "pay public obligations, to provide properly for education of children, and to administer effectively public affairs. While this is true, and while our rev: enue laws are enacted with the view of having the burden of taxation to bear equally on all, it is a fact, that, practically, there is more or less inequality in this regard. There are many reasons conducive to this unfortunate condition. The tax assessors of the counties, being elective officers, with short terms, and in most cases, candidates for re-election, are naturally disposed to allow the tax payer to value his own property. There being no fixed standard of values, it is not surprising that wide differences exist in the assessment of property of equal value ; and, as the law generally requires construction as to the meaning of terms, that construction is generally indulged by the tax payer that is most favorable to him. So much so, that there has grown up an idea voiced in the expression, that there is real value of property and a tax value that is lower than the real value, notwithstanding the law requires all property to be assessed at its real value.. There being 'no board of appraisers in this State, such inconsistency will naturally continue to prevail, and inequality of taxation naturally result. As long as the assessments are thus unequally made, we can expect nothing else than that values of property will remain low, and the rate of taxation necessarily correspondingly high: It is the part of wisdom to recognize facts as they are, and deal with them accordingly.
What is ainple remedy for the defect in our revenue law, is not so apparent. Other States have appraisers,appoint assessors with long terms of office, and the like. Such departures are too radically different from what has long been our machinery, to be attempted at this time. The legislature vəry recently attempted a remedy in the passage of what is commonly known as 'the Back Tax Law. That it has, in its administration, been abused in some instances, may be true, and, on account of such abuse, it has become quite
unpopular, but that it had a salutary effect in securing more nearly equal taxation than existed prior to its enactment, will be apparent to any one who will take the trouble to look into its practical results. It has really not been in operation long enough to test its efficiency. It has added several millions of dollars to the tax values of property in the State. That it has had the effect of causing some men to assess their property at a fair valuation is apparent from the tax returns. Indeed, I have heard it reported that some tax payers (I am willing to believe they are few) seeing a novement to abolish the law, are refraining from giving in their property for taxation until the result of the movement to abolish the law is seen. That such a law is unpopular in some sections, we are fully apprised. That unpopularity has been caused not entirely on account of any just objection to the principle underlying the law, but, possibly, because some, unfortunately, desire to evade a proper assessment of their property, and possibly, because of the abuse in the administration of the law. Any law, however just, wise and proper, can be rendered unpopular by abuse in its administration.
In view of the fact that present appropriations are so large, it is apparent that some means must be devised by which to obtain fair tax valuation, or the State must be subjected to the mortification of being unable to meet the public demands for the rate of taxation is now at the constitutional limit. This is the problem that you, gentlemen of the General Assem. bly, must, in your wisdom, solve. I am free to confess that I doubt the wisdom of repealing the back tax law. If there are defects in it, amend the law so as to have it operate fairly, justly, and equally upon all. Without intending to criticise in the least the administration of this law in the past, I also add that all tax commissioners should be men of such fairness, wisdom, and patriotism, as that such qualities in them would be manifest to all men, and thereby render the law popular in its administration. I believe this can be done. On the contrary, the repeal of the law, without some similar substitute, is likely to leave the machinery for collection of the revenue necessary to meet
the appropriations and demands of the State so inefficient as to cause a serious deficit, a condition that no thoughtful citizen would desire to see. I am not wedded exclusively to the "back tax” commission law, though, not being wholly untried, it seems to me to be the most feasible legislation now in sight. Perhaps, in your wisdom, you may devise an efficient substitute. If so, I will cordially second any effort you may make;
, but that something must be done, is not an open question.
The General Assembly, before its adjournment for the recess, appointed a committee to investigate the condition of the treasury I cannot know what will be the report of that committee, but I doubt not that when that report is made, the force of the suggestions hereinbefore made will be manifest, and I therefore invite your very serious consideration to the condition of the finances of the State.
As accentuating the gravity of the situation, I call your attention to the fact that the auditor's statement of assets and liabilities at the clos of business, Sept. 30th, 1900, discloses a deficit of $184,564.22. Since that time there have been very large appropriations passed, which, if his estimates are correct, even if the taxable values are maintained, will cause that deficit for the present year to be considerably increased. Besides, owing to an error in the revenue law passed by the last General Assembly, there will necessarily have to be refunded a large amount of license tax that has been paid in, which increases the amount of the disbursements.
To go a little more into the details of the sinancial condition of the State : On assuming the duties of the office, I requested one of the State Examiners to prepare me a statement of the apparent condition of the treasury, and I give to you a part of the information I obtained from him for your consideration :
The, Auditor's report for the fiscal year, ending Sept 30th, 1900, shows a deficit, as before stated, in the State treasury for that year, amounting to $184,564.22. The available cash at that date, as stated by the Auditor, amounted to $620,767.68. Liabililies amounted to $751,056.90, and “estimated liabilities"
to $54,275.00, making a total of liabilities of $805,331.90. Deducting the available cash from the total liabilities, the deficit is shown to be' as before stated, $184,564.22.
Further, the Auditor's estimate of receipts for the fiscal year ending September 30th, 1901, is $2,547,500.00 His estimate of disbursements for the year is $2,526,970.00; showing a balance of receipts over disbursements of $20,530.00. So that, according to the Auditor's report, the estimated deficit September 30th, 1901, will be $164,034.22. He bases his estimate of receipts from taxes on real and personal property, based upon a valuation made last year, amounting to $266,893,288.00; which, for general purposes, with the tax rate of five and one-half mills, will produce taxes amounting to $1,467,972.92.
The auditor's estimate of general taxes that will reach the State treasury, it will be seen, is $1,380,000.00, which is about $28,575.00 in excess of receipts from general taxes last year, when the valuation from which collections were made was $258,960,487.77; that is, a valuation of $7,932,800.00 less than the present year.
The auditor's estimate of receipts from licenses this. year is $ 155,000.00. The receipts from licenses for the year ending Sept. 30th, 1900, were $ 205,283.09; for the first year ending September 30th, 1899, they were $182,045.06, and for the year ending September 30th, 1898, they were $158,304.88. But the revenue law of February 23d, 1899, having been declared unconstitutional, by the Supreme Court, the geveral assembly passed an act, approved December 13th, 1900, "To refund and pay back certain State and county license money, collected under the void act. The exact amount necessary to be paid under that act, I do not know, but it will amount to a considerable sum-approximately, $50,000.00.
The auditor, of course, made his estimate of receipts and disbursements for the current year, under the laws in force at the time he made it; the present general assembly, however, as before stated, has increased the appropriation, which will demand a corresponding increase in the disbursements for the cur