Wednesday, June 15, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Beebe enters the fray

A full year ahead of the Arkansas primaries, all the major commanders if not their armies are now in the field. He may not be the last Democrat to enter the race for governor in 2006, but Attorney General Mike Beebe, who made it official yesterday, will be the Democratic candidate for governor barring being caught in flagrante delicto doing something dreadfully impolitic.

Being unusually frank might do it, too. And it doesn’t take much cand or to do a politician in. Choosing your words carefully, which Beebe has done all his public life, sometimes is not enough in a campaign against ruthless opponents. Unless we misjudge him, Beebe will not make sweeping, bold and controversial proposals as a candidate. In that respect, he will be like the two Republican candidates, Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller and former Congressman Asa Hutchinson.

But the other day, in answer to a question about school taxes if the courts should order considerably higher funding to comply with the Constitution, Beebe said Arkansas had reached the saturation point on sales taxes, which is the way the state has funded incremental increases in school spending for 70 years. It is the only broad-based state tax that can be levied by a simple majority of the legislature, but the Arkansas sales tax is high in relation to nearby states.

In a pinch caused by court orders, Beebe said, the best Arkansas could do would be to raise property taxes, which requires a vote of the people.

It would be incumbent on state leaders, he said, to go out and persuade voters of the need and propriety of the tax. The property tax is terribly unpopular, but the tax rate in Arkansas is among the lowest in the 50 states. Broadening the base of the sales tax to cover some services also would be preferable to raising the tax rate, he said. Now, Beebe was not proposing to raise those taxes but suggesting the most equitable of a range of very bad options. But if you listen to Hutchinson, Beebe wants to raise your property taxes.

Hutchinson issued a statement saying he would oppose raising taxes on the possessions of farmers and homeowners.

When Rockefeller, in similar woolgathering remarks, speculated that raising the currently invisible severance tax on natural gas if the courts put the state under the gun, Hutchinson condemned him and said he would never permit severance taxes to be raised. Gas producers now pay a tax of three tenths of a penny for a thousand cubic feet of gas - by far the lowest rate in America.

So what tax would Hutchinson propose to increase if the state were under court order to spend a lot more on its children? He will, of course, not say. All taxes are too high. When he’s pressed, we predict, Hutchinson will come out foursquare for cutting the waste and fat out of government.

Meantime, the cast and the script for the 2006 campaign are fixed. Whatever precautions he takes, Beebe will be the taxer and spender, Hutchinson the tight-fisted foe of taxes, Rockefeller the absentee in the argument. The negative candidate always sets the terms of the debate. Welcome to the campaign, General Beebe.