Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Those Days it was Even Harder to Get Southerners to Pay Taxes

Current events lead me to jump many years forward in my posts.  Newspaper articles are now warning us that Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana are threatened with disastrous flooding due to the unprecedented height of the Mississippi flood crests now rushing down on them. Today's NY Times article begins:
All eyes in the delta are on the Mississippi River and the bulge of water it is carrying southward, pushing back its tributaries into the towns along its banks, sending residents scattering toward higher ground and setting records all along the way.
"This is historic," said Col. Jeffrey R. Eckstein, commander of the Vicksburg District of the Army Corps of Engineers, who became the day's keynote speaker at the last minute. "Things that have never happened, people here have never seen before, we are going to see."
Continue reading here:
Henry Brown Richardson faced similar situations often after he was named Head Engineer of the State of Louisiana in 1880.  At that time the Federal government had not yet taken any responsibility for flood control, so Louisiana, that is, Henry and his three assistants, had to face up to this problem alone. Henry's most difficult task was to convince the planter aristocracy to accept taxes high enough to pay for levee improvements.  As long as the levees held, they rejected higher taxes for this purpose. But in 1882, many levees broke, and planters suffered disastrous flooding and severe financial losses.  After that, it was much easier to convince them to pay taxes for levee construction.
But for little else.
The State Constitution of 1879, provided strict limitations on taxation, which made it extremely difficult to raise funds even for minimum public services. The State Engineer's office received no funds for the State highway system until after 1900, when Henry was about to retire.  Public schools for whites as well as blacks were starved of funds. Henry's wife's diary suggests that they had to send all of their nine children to private schools, which even then was a considerable burden on a public servant's salary.
As we see from current State and Federal budget fights, political elites in Louisiana and neighboring states still don't like paying taxes all that much. Well, nobody does, but when the water starts to rise, we're sure glad the Corps of Engineers is there to build and repair those levees.

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