Saturday, December 04, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Tax cuts up in air

The economics is easy; it’s the politics of this week’s tax-cut battle that we do not understand.
Why are Democrats and President Obama surrendering on an issue on which the vast majority of the American people support them?

Thursday, the U. S. House of Representatives voted to extend the income tax cuts of a decade ago, except the top bracket. The tax rate on income above $250,000 would return to 39.6 percent from the current rate of 35 percent. The current rate is near the lowest it has been since World War I (it was 33 percent from 1988 until 1991). Even at 39.6 percent, the tax rate on America’s richest 1 percent would still be less than half what it was in 1970.

Polls have shown consistently, as late as last week, that three-fourths of Americans think that is the right thing to do. It would shave $680 billion from the nation’s deficits over the next 10 years and would have no dampening effect on the economy. When the top tax rate was raised to 39.6 percent from 35 percent in 1993, you may remember, the economy set off on the biggest growth binge in history, including 22 million new jobs in eight years.

We were glad to see that half the Arkansas House delegation saw the same wisdom that most Americans did and voted to extend the tax cuts for all but the richest people—some 15,000 of them in Arkansas who have income in the top bracket. Actually, the people who profit most from that bill still would be the richest people. They would enjoy the same tax cuts in four lower brackets that middle-class workers do, only much more. They still would get an average tax cut of $61,510 a year, far more than everyone else; they just wouldn’t get the extra benefit of the low rate on income above $250,000.

Rep. Vic Snyder of Little Rock and Rep. Mike Ross of Prescott voted for the bill. Rep. John Boozman of Springdale, who is shortly to become our senator, voted no, as always because that is what the Republican leadership requires. Rep. Marion Berry of Gillett, who has taken a strange turn in his last months in office, sided with the Republicans on procedural votes to try to prevent a vote on the bill and then ducked the roll call on the bill. It had the effect of a “no” vote, but at least he didn’t get recorded as voting against a tax increase for a million Arkansas families. All that we can figure is that the few hundred multimillionaires in his poor district let him know this year that they expected him to start representing them. That is how he has voted for a year.

But the House bill seems to be dead because Republicans have the votes to block passage in the Senate. They want the richest people to get the full tax cut forever and vow to block any bill that extends the tax cuts only for the middle class. A few Democrats, intimidated by the election results and fearful that people really must believe the Republican message, will oppose any restoration of taxes on the rich, and that is enough to stymie the bill in the Senate, which needs a supermajority to get anything done.

So President Obama said this week that he would compromise with the Republicans and keep the tax cuts for the rich for a few years if the Republicans will vote to continue unemployment benefits a while longer for those who still cannot find work. They may refuse to give him even that. The Republican leadership believes that we have already spent too much on the shiftless people who aren’t working and that if jobless benefits are to be continued at all, the president must cut $50 billion in spending on the poor and disabled elsewhere.

Otherwise, they will let all the lower tax rates expire at the end of the month, as President Bush and they intended 10 years ago when they passed the temporary tax cuts. Obama and the Democrats apparently would then get the blame.

The Bush cuts were to end in 2010 so that the long-range budget projections would not show the mammoth deficits. The assumption was that in 2010, Congress wouldn’t have the guts to let taxes go back up. Bush and his advisers were right: They didn’t care about the deficit. As Dick Cheney famously said, “Deficits don’t matter.”

We understand the game and why it is played. We don’t understand why the winning hand always loses.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Pulaski County too generous

These Tea Party people sometimes have a good point. The partiers planned to storm the Pulaski County Quorum Court meeting last week to protest a plan to give county workers, including the Quorum Court members themselves and other elected officials, a 4 percent pay raise.

Ordinarily, we should all rejoice when any group of workers gets a raise. Ordinarily. Lord knows county workers, with perhaps a few exceptions, are not overpaid.

But a 4 percent raise for public employees in this autumn of distress? Tens of thousands of people in our own area are unemployed, many of them for longer than two years, and incomes have been stagnant for years for everyone but those at the top.

After all, county workers got a 4 percent raise and a 4 percent bonus last year and a 5 percent raise the previous year. Few employee groups in either the public or private sector have thrived so well in this dismal economy. We doubt that other public agencies or the private sector are hiring away sheriff’s deputies and other trained county workers with premium salaries.

The county can do it because property tax collections have continued in abundance through the recession and there is money in the treasury to do it. But the county officials ought to understand the sensibilities of people who paid those taxes and who aren’t having it so good. Besides, there are desperate needs for those funds. Save them for jail beds.

We may miss our guess, but we expect voters will remember the county’s generosity to itself when it asks them to approve a sales tax to expand the jail and staffing.

EDITORIAL >>Legislature heard from

As you would expect in this season of discontent, taxes will be on the minds of Arkansas legislators when they assemble in January. They will be talking about tax cuts rather than increases, but that is not necessarily a good thing. Impetuous tax cuts can imperil fairness and solvency. The Arkansas tax system already is grossly unfair and barely supports a weak program of services.

The blue-ribbon highway committee has proposed a big package of new taxes or a diversion of taxes to build and repair highways, roads and streets, but it will be dead on arrival at the Capitol. The legislature clearly will be in no mood to raise taxes. Even the Chamber of Commerce plea to raise unemployment taxes to avert a harsher federal levy to replenish the federal coffers for extended jobless payments in Arkansas will meet resistance because many legislators ran on a pledge never to raise a dime of taxes for any purpose even when their masters ask for one.

The real danger comes from a tax-cutting euphoria, a sense that voters this year were angry about taxes and spending, wherever and for whatever purpose. Voters are always more discerning than that.

Governor Beebe wants the legislature to shave another half-penny off the sales tax on groceries, lowering it to 1.5 percent and putting Beebe a step closer to his goal of eliminating the tax (except the small part that is embedded in the Constitution). That would reduce revenues by $20 million a year, which the budget can accommodate only if the slow economic recovery continues. The state cannot go beyond that without cutting back aid to communities, which accounts for most state spending.

The most improvident proposal is the one that has the broadest support, repealing or phasing out income taxes on capital gains. The Arkansas Policy Foundation, the rich man’s think tank, is back arguing that ridding investors of taxes on their profits is the best thing the state can do to stimulate the economy and create jobs. A bunch of legislators want to sponsor the bill. Legislators, having heard their masters’ voice, will find the legislation irresistible. Beebe may have to exercise his veto, although the legislature can override it by a simple majority.

The philosophy behind special capital-gains treatment is that government should collect income taxes only on the wages of workers, not on the income of investors. The myth that taxing investment profits discourages hiring will not go away, although the record over and over disproves it.

In 1999, the legislature excluded 30 percent of long-term capital gains from taxes to stimulate jobs, Governor Huckabee and the sponsors said. Employment declined the next three years. The record is just as consistent at the national level. Capital-gains taxes were raised under President Gerald Ford and the economy rebounded. President Jimmy Carter cut capital-gains taxes and economic growth decelerated. President Ronald Reagan cut them in 1981 and the nation immediately fell into the deepest recession since the 1930s. He raised it in his big tax-reform bill in 1986 and hiring accelerated the next two years. President George W. Bush lowered the taxes and the act was followed by the worst jobs performance of modern times.

If lawmakers want to give special help to the 15,000 or so Arkansans with the lion’s share of capital gains—those with incomes above $200,000—they should be frank about it and not claim that they’re doing it for the unemployed. They’re not.

Better yet, just don’t do it.

TOP STORY > >Bird sanctuary giving raptors second chance


Leader staff writer

Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas in El Paso unveiled its new eagle flight pen on Tuesday and released two red-tailed hawks back into the wild.

Raptor Rehab cares for injured eagles, hawks, owls and vultures until they are well enough live in the wild. Representatives from the Little Rock Zoo, the Game and Fish Commission and the State Parks were at the unveiling.

Entergy helped Raptor Rehab in building a flight pen for eagles and large raptors last month with an Entergy Environmental Initiative Grant. Entergy provided the facility with $13,000 in support for the project including 26 utility poles.

Funding for the eagle flight-pen project is part of a bird protection plan Entergy is creating to submit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011.

The pen is 100 feet long, 20 feet wide and 18 feet tall. It can hold up to four eagles at one time. Construction of the pen began in June and was completed last month.

The eagle flight pen is one of three in the state. Other eagle flight pens are in Mena and Decatur. Electric crews put up all the poles in four hours.

Also helping build the pen were five Marines from the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training at Little Rock Air Force Base. The Marines spent three weekends volunteering their time to construct the pen and smaller pens on the property.

The pen was built at the home of Rodney Paul, the founder of Raptor Rehab. Nine other small flight pens are housed on his property.

Raptor Rehab is a volunteer effort funded by Paul and donations. He receives no money from the state or federal governments. Paul does not own the raptors, he is a caretaker. The birds belong to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Paul holds a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for sick and injured raptors. He began Raptor Rehab eight year ago while he was a volunteer with the Little Rock Zoo educational department. Paul estimates he has released 400 raptors back into the wild. This year he has released 90.

Paul worked on navigation and electric systems on corporate jets until he was laid off last year. Now he has more time to care for the injured birds.

Paul said he doesn’t look for injured raptors. The public calls the Game and Fish Commission, and wildlife officers refer the birds to Raptor Rehab. Most of the injured birds are stuck by cars. Four years ago he cared for a bald eagle that was shot.

Paul said he has a 50 percent success rate with releasing birds back into the wild. Raptors unable to live in the wild are used for educational purposes. He takes the birds to schools, churches and youth organizations.

Paul said the educational birds are handled as much as possible, but birds in rehab are rarely touched.

“We don’t want to socialize them in any way,” Paul said.

“Do not touch the birds. They are powerful and dangerous. You can get hurt pretty bad,” Paul said.

Any raptor that dies while in rehabilitation has to be destroyed.

“If you are caught with a feather, it is against the law,” Paul said.

The average stay for a bird in rehab is three months. When the raptors are eating, flying well and healthy enough, Paul lets them go. Bald eagles are released at DeGray Lake and Greers Ferry Lake. Other raptors are released at a nearby landowner’s field.

During Tuesday’s event, two red-tailed hawks were released back into the wild.

“This is great. Rodney just loves it,” Melissa Paul, Rodney’s wife, said.

Entergy communication specialist David Lewis was able to release a hawk back to nature.

“That was fun. I never released a raptor into the wild before. It was quite an experience,” he said.

Paul said he gets “the satisfaction of nursing something back to health from the brink of death into the wild.”

Karen Rowe with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said in 1982, the first pair of bald eagles was seen in the state since the 1950’s.

In 1986, the commission counted 134 bald eagles in the state, now she said there are approximately 3,000 bald eagles living in the state during winter.

Approximately 14 eagles are injured in the state each year.

TOP STORY > >In Cabot, planning a priority to Cypert


Leader staff writer

Bill Cypert, who won the runoff election for Cabot mayor last week against former Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, is getting ready for his new job.

He has resigned as the minister of music at Mountain Springs Baptist Church and he is officially off the Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission on Jan. 1, when he will be sworn in as mayor.

“I’m clearing my calendar and commitments so I can be a full-time mayor,” Cypert said Monday night.

Cypert left for deer camp to relax after the election, but he was back in Cabot to meet with Mayor Eddie Joe Williams on Sunday afternoon. Cypert said he will continue to work on projects that Williams won’t have time to complete before he starts his new job as state senator: a new fire station in the Greystone-Magness Creek area and a right-turn lane on Willie Ray Drive at Hwy. 89.

He has asked Williams for a copy of the proposed 2011 budget as well as the latest 2010 financial report and budget variance. From what he has heard from attending budget and personnel committe meetings, Cypert said he sees no reason the 2011 budget can’t be passed during the December council meeting.

Now 68 years old, Cypert retired from Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield as head of planning for technology strategy and procurement.

He said he is humbled by the unexpected 71 percent of the votes he received in the runoff two days before Thanksgiving in which almost 3,000 votes were cast.

“I wasn’t expecting that much in total and I wasn’t expecting that margin,” Cypert said. “I am humbled and thankful.

“I think the voters set the tone for what they expect in the next four years and I’m ready. As you know, I love a challenge,” he said.

Cypert said he wants information about all the various departments such as how many employees, a copy of the employee handbook and policies. With those in hand, he will begin meeting with department heads.

Cypert said he will keep all the department heads: Jackie Davis in the police department, Phil Robinson in the fire department and Jerrel Maxwell in public works, but he will need two new employees in the mayor’s office, an administrative assistant and an operations director.

Kay Waters, the interim operations director, will be replaced, and Lisa Wilson, Williams’ assistant, is transferring to the clerk-treasurer’s office.

“I’ll probably upgrade both positions,” Cypert said. “I’ll add responsibilities and expectations.”

Williams has advertised the position of operations director and taken several resumes. Cypert said after he completes his job description for the position, he will go through the resumes and decide if anyone is qualified. He may choose from those applications or he may not, he said.

Aside from filling those two positions, the incoming mayor said there will be few changes when he takes over – at least for a while.

“I will take office in a quiet fashion,” he said. “After the first quarter I may make some changes. There will be no surprises.”

As with Williams, traffic will be a priority with Cypert who said he will use the 2007 traffic study as a basis for a long-range plan (hopefully adopted by the council) to build new roads over the next 25 to 50 years to keep the traffic moving.

“I would hope by July, I would have a strategic plan that everyone could buy into,” he said.

Drainage also will be a priority, he said. He would like to identify all the drainage basins, pinpoint the problems in each and address the problems.

He said he wants the city to be run like a business the same way Cabot WaterWorks is run.

Although the mayor has no control over Cabot WaterWorks, parks or the planning commission, Cypert said he believes the mayor does have influence. And he will encourage the planning commission and parks to develop long range plans like Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission has developed for Cabot WaterWorks.

TOP STORY > >Shredding dustup before high court

By Stephen Steed

Special to The Leader

The 17 Pulaski County circuit judges overstepped their authority two weeks ago when they ordered Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Pat O’Brien to stop shredding papers as part of his effort to digitalize courthouse records, O’Brien said in an appeal filed Monday with the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court told the attorney general’s office, which is representing the 17 judges, to file an answer to O’Brien’s appeal by noon Wednesday.

O’Brien said by telephone later Monday that he hopes the state’s high court will address the issue in the short time remaining before O’Brien leaves office in January.

“There’s something of a 10-day rule mentioned (in the court’s administrative proceedings), but really it’s up to the discretion of the court,” O’Brien said. The holiday season makes a small window even smaller.

All 17 judges joined in two separate but identical orders issued on Nov. 12 and Nov. 15 ordering O’Brien to “cease and desist” shredding paper documents as they’re converted to electronic files. That has been a two-year project of O’Brien and his staff. It has cost about $425,000 so far but will save the county some $1.5 million over the next 10 years in storage costs, he has said.

The judges maintain they’re not against digitalizing court documents and moving to a “paperless” society. They have contended — in news accounts and in private meetings with O’Brien the past three months — that a few kinks need to be worked out of the system before paper paper documents are shredded.

O’Brien said he has tried to address the judges’ concerns but believes the process is working fine. He resumed shredding paper documents in November after a short break of not doing it, at the request of Circuit Judge Vann Smith.

Once he resumed, the judges in a rare order signed by all 17, told him to stop.

O’Brien’s writ to the Supreme Court says the judges “took the extraordinary step” of preventing the clerk’s office from carrying out its duties as allowed by Arkansas law and by authority of the Supreme Court.

The filing also says the judges “have overstepped their authority and breached the separation-of-powers doctrine between the judicial branch and the executive branch of government.”

“Essentially (circuit clerk) has been enjoined from doing his job,” O’Brien said in his appeal, asking the court to grant him an immediate oral hearing to make his case in the two orders of Nov. 12 and 15. The 17 circuit judges cited their “inherent authority over the operation of the courts” as legal reason for the cease-and-desist order to O’Brien and his staff.

O’Brien’s writ says the circuit judges cited no state law or court precedent in reaching that conclusion.

TOP STORY > >Hopson takes heat from teachers


Leader senior staff writer

Against the wishes of Superintendent Charles Hopson, the Pulaski County Special School Board decided Tuesday evening to have a budget and contract workshop Dec. 13, then consider the long-overdue contracts and raises for teachers and support staff at the regular meeting the next night.

Hopson, who called Tuesday night’s special meeting to clarify his role and that of the board, had hoped to hold consideration of the contracts until the January meeting, devoting the December meeting to the sorry state of district facilities and a framework for new construction, renovation and repairs


Hopson opened saying he wanted to dispel rumors. “This is not a meeting to announce my resignation. We’re moving forward. We have tremendous challenges, including facilities and the (likely) phaseout of desegregation funding.”

But the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff and their supporters on the board said the employees had waited long enough.

Board member Gwen Williams said it was time to resolve the issue of teacher contracts. “Some of the things being perceived in public—(Hopson needs to) sit down with (PACT president) Marty Nix and (PASS pPresident) Emry Chesterfield and have an honest conversation with them. There’s still a lack of trust out there.

“I would like to see contracts on the December board meeting,” she added. Hopson said he wasn’t sure the district had enough money for the raises negotiators for the unions and the district were talking about—2 percent for next year and 3 percent the following year.

Nix challenged Hopson’s contention, saying there was $1 million for additional buses to accommodate Hopson’s new bell schedule and a quarter of a million dollars for consultants to help the district deal with issues of race and also with long-range strategic planning.

“All complain that the central office is swelling since we got out of fiscal distress,” board president Bill Vasquez said.

He recommended going back to the staffing plan adopted but not implemented at that time because more funds became available. The district then had 19,000 students but now has 16,500, he said, requiring fewer administrators and perhaps fewer schools.

“We had $20 million worth of identifiable cuts,” Vasquez said. “All we need is about three or four million. Pick your poison.”

Vasquez set the Dec. 13 workshop and asked that the district’s negotiator, Deputy Superintendent Paul Brewer, facilities director Col. Derrick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Anita Farver be prepared to answer financial questions for the board.

Board members Sandra Sawyer and Mildred Tatum, both of whom will be out of town for the workshop, had suggested holding the issue for January.

Farver told board member Gloria Lawrence that there already was about a 1.5 percent pay increase built into next year’s budget. She said it would cost the district about $600,000 per percent to pay for any raises.

Several board members said they were unhappy that they found out about the trip eight district representatives were making to China this week came from a leak and inquiries from reporters.

The Confucius Institute’s UCA branch arranged the trip for several Arkansas school districts interested in teaching Mandarin Chinese. The district’s share of the cost is about $3,400, but the board members said they thought they should have been informed about the program.

Hopson said it comes under his responsibilities as the district’s educational leader.

Vasquez said the board would decide at the December meeting whether or not to approve the contracts, and if cuts had to be made to afford the raises, where those cuts would be made.

SPORTS>> Editor still not ready to eat his words over Hogs, yet


Leader sports editor

Less than a year ago, I took a little heat when I wrote in this space that as long as the Arkansas Razorbacks play in the SEC, the best they can hope for is an average 7.5 victories a year and a decent bowl game.

Actually, I took heat because I was defending former coach Houston Nutt against his un-grateful critics. I felt and still feel that, personality and personal baggage aside, Nutt did his utmost for Arkansas and left the program better than when he found it.

The two people who read my column didn’t like what I had to say that much. One declared I would be eating my words after the Razorbacks won a national championship and quarterback Ryan Mallett took the Heisman trophy this year.

Well, those things aren’t happening, but after Saturday’s latest thriller between Arkansas and LSU in Little Rock, I’m still willing to nibble a few syllables. Because as it stands the 10-2 Razorbacks and third-year coach Bobby Petrino have exceeded that 7.5 average and are looking at a REALLY good bowl this year.

At the very least, maybe we can all move on now and forget about Nutt — until his Ole Miss Rebels play the Hogs again next season anyway.

On Saturday, the Razor-backs knocked off the No. 5 Tigers 31-23 in War Memorial Stadium and kept up that tradition (begun under a certain former coach we have agreed to forget) of giving LSU fits when they play in the Capital City.

It wasn’t the 2002 Miracle on Markham, which Matt Jones won with his 31-yard touchdown pass to DeCori Birming-ham with nine seconds left. Nor was it the 2008 Miracle on Markham II, which Casey Dick won with a 24-yard touchdown pass to London Crawford on fourth and one with 22 seconds left.

Last week’s game was mildly less exciting only because Mallett turned in his biggest play, with a huge assist from receiver Cobi Hamilton, at the end of the first half instead of the second.

By the way, what’s up with all these receivers’ names anyway? DeCori, London, Cobi? Did these guys have movie stars for parents or something?

Anyway, Mallett hooked up with Hamilton on the sideline and Hamilton turned it into an 80-yard scoring play with no time left for the 21-14 halftime lead. The play was a companion piece to the 85-yard, Mallett-to-Hamilton scoring completion posted earlier in the second quarter.

It was still a nail-biter for the most part — LSU was within 21-20 at one point — but the scoring ended with a field goal by the Tigers’ Josh Jasper with 4:11 left.

And when the sun rose over the BCS landscape Monday, Arkansas had risen to No. 7, an all-time high, in the composite rankings that sort of help determine the national champion.

Yes, the Razorbacks still have their red pig noses plastered against the glass as they look in on the top four Auburn, Oregon, TCU and Stanford. But, though not in the national championship picture, Arkansas can expect a far better postseason trip than last year’s jaunt down Interstate 40 to Memphis and the Liberty Bowl against East Carolina.

Several people are kicking around the idea of the Sugar Bowl. And why not? The Hogs earned it.

They earned it by finding some defense and a running game to go with the high-powered offense led by Mallett. And they earned it with a six-game winning streak that included

victories over quality, SEC opponents like Mississippi State, South Carolina and LSU.

Arkansas’ two losses were to Alabama, No. 1 at the time, and current No. 1 Auburn, which rallied from 24-0 to beat Alabama 28-27 on Friday in what may be the game of the year.

That victory, by the way, certainly speaks to the quality of the SEC, which seems to hold a bowl game somewhere every week.

It also speaks to Arkansas’ accomplishments and proves if you can win in the SEC you will likely be playing for something special early in the new year.

Unfortunately, the Hogs’ defense was mostly MIA in the 65-43 loss to Auburn even as Mallett was lighting up the scoreboard.

And it was Mallett who can pass the ball 80 yards on a dime yet couldn’t toss it away out of bounds when he threw a critical interception against Alabama.

That play, and an end zone interception in the same game, probably cost Mallett his chance at the Heisman.

It all goes to show just how few mistakes a team can afford each week in the SEC. But I give Arkansas its due credit and I will happily swallow a few words.

It’s a nice change of pace from leftover turkey.