Wednesday, May 11, 2016

EDITORIAL >> How to fix our roads

Leadership sometimes surfaces in the most shocking places, which is to say, in Arkansas, where it should surface. That would be in the lawmaking branch of government. Four senators—all Republicans!—are proposing that the legislature raise excise taxes on motor fuels when they convene next week in a special session that is intended to raise a little cash to repair the state’s deteriorating streets and roads.

This will be Gov. Hutchinson’s special session. Special sessions belong to the governor, who alone can call them and who controls what the legislators can consider. Hutchinson says the state desperately needs a road program both to repair streets and roads damaged by years of unusually bad weather for infrastructure and to match heavy aid that Congress and the president finally offered to the states.

But Hutchinson’s own plan offers next to nothing, a highway program in name only.  It takes a little money from terribly underfunded public education and gives it to the Highway Department and then projects huge budget surpluses each of the next 10 years that he could divert to highways. Everyone knows that the budget surpluses will never happen, unless he and the legislature can contrive to steal even greater sums each year from schools and the state’s health services.

We must note parenthetically here that the governor and legislature are already flagrantly violating the Constitution, the school-funding statutes and the Lake View settlement order by scaling down school support each year far below the levels required by the Constitution. They will get by with it until someone files a fresh lawsuit to hold them accountable.

But back to these legislative leaders. Raising taxes, for any purpose, for any reason, any time, is a no-no in the brave new world of Republican orthodoxy. Since 1986, Americans for Tax Reform, a big-business group headed by Grover Norquist, has been getting federal and state lawmakers and candidates for governor and president to sign a blood oath that they will never vote for or sign a tax increase for any purpose. Norquist’s goal is to reduce government everywhere to a size where it can be drowned in the bathtub.

Nine state senators and 20 state representatives signed Norquist’s pledge. Nine senators are all that are needed to block the gasoline and diesel tax increase the four senators are proposing. But they are talking about introducing it anyway. That is leadership. They put the needs of their communities ahead of their political careers. They were elected to do something, not be robots. Let’s name them: Bill Sample of Hot Springs, Ronald Caldwell of Wynne, Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana and Greg Strandridge of Russellville.  All, as we said, Republicans.

Let it be said that most of the Democrats, though a distinct minority in each house, would vote for road and street taxes, but they are not going to sponsor a bill that is certain to be defeated and certain to get them a Republican opponent financed by Americans for Tax Reform and Americans for Prosperity.

Except one. Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success, who is co-chairman of the Joint Revenue and Taxation Committee, says he and his counterpart, Sample, are working on a highway tax that might fly with a majority vote in each house rather than the staggering three-fourths vote that the Arkansas Constitution (alone among all the states) requires for most taxes. A three-fourths vote is required to raise a tax that existed in 1934. They are toying with simply repealing or reducing the exemption from the sales tax that motor fuels enjoy. The legislature would not be raising a tax rate but merely removing an exemption. Besides, the sales tax did not exist in 1934.

Here’s our own passable tax plan for the highways: Repeal the sales-tax exemption for motor fuels and slice the excise tax in half. A majority could do it. Simple democracy.
Gov. Hutchinson, who undoubtedly would love such a plan and would sign it (he refused to sign Norquist’s pledge when he was running in 2014), ought to publicly embrace it. It would give some cover to weakhearted legislators of his own party who would like to tell people they did something about the potholed streets and roads and that their governor made them do it.

In another time, Gov. Dale Bumpers told caviling legislators: “If you’ll vote for this tax, I’ll come to your district and tell your voters: ‘If you hate this tax, vote against me, not him, because I begged him to do it.’” He did, and not one legislator was ever defeated for voting for higher income taxes, cigarette taxes and motor-fuel taxes or to close special-interest exemptions, all to improve highways and streets, schools, colleges, state parks and medical facilities. Not one was beaten. Not one.

In those days, taxes were not loved but were still considered the price of civilization. Now they are a plague to be avoided if you want to be sure of drawing your per diem, monthly state check and taxpayer-provided health insurance next year. In those days, giants strode the halls of the Capitol. OK, maybe we’ve gone too far, but we think Gov. Hutchinson got the message. After all, Bumpers trounced him in 1986 after he attacked the senator for opposing President Reagan’s giant tax cut for the rich while supporting spending cuts. We looked it up. Bumpers defeated Hutchinson 63 percent-37 perent. Now he can join the senator in the pantheon of Arkansas statesmen.

—Ernie Dumas