With less than a couple weeks until the election and early voting already under way, Arkansans are beginning to see the campaign ads fill up their mailbox and the airwaves. A couple of campaigns might be giving voters whiplash by talking about moving Arkansas forward and backward.
Move Arkansas Forward is the group organized to promote a proposed constitutional amendment for a half-cent sales tax increase that would fund a state highway bond program. The committee has raised and spent about $1.5 millions so far on their campaign to convince voters that our roads are in a state of disrepair and that this tax increase-bond program is the solution.
The proposal is one of the products of the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance which was formed by the Legislature a few years ago to figure out how to deal with what some consider a lack of significant revenue growth for state highways.
During last year’s legislative session, state lawmakers could not find the 75 votes needed to pass the tax themselves, so former state highway commissioner-turned-Republican State Rep. Jonathan Barnett of Siloam Springs pushed this proposal through. In addition, the idea of referring a tax increase to the ballot for a vote of the people seemed more palatable to many lawmakers who may otherwise have been averse to voting for an outright tax hike.
Part of the campaign’s selling point is that the tax increase is temporary.
"The temporary half cent sales tax is for 10 years only. When the bonds are repaid in 10 years or less, the temporary tax is abolished by the Constitution," states the committee’s campaign materials.
Count me skeptical. Experience seems to indicate that once government becomes accustomed to receiving a new stream of tax revenue those in power are reluctant to give it up.
A good example is the highway GARVEE bonds renewed in a special election in 2011. We were told at the time – by this same Move Arkansas Forward Committee – not to worry as this vote was merely to renew the bond program and had no additional taxes. This was true as the 4-cent diesel tax was approved with the original bond program in 1999 and this just allowed the program to continue.
If someone is for giving the state government more than $100 million in additional sales tax revenue a year, by all means vote for this proposal. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that in 10 years voters will not be asked once again to continue this much needed program.
On another front, without a statewide candidate on the ballot or any competitive congressional races, it seems Arkansas Democrats are focusing their resources on maintaining their 138-year one-party control of the Legislature.
Their cookie-cutter political ads are some variation of "Why does (fill-in-the-blank Republican state legislative candidate) want to turn Arkansas backward?"
The ad will then point to some instance in which the Republican did not vote for an issue supported by Gov. Mike Beebe and conclude that the Democratic opponent will "continue the Beebe agenda."
The campaign is perhaps erroneously betting on Beebe’s popularity. A recent poll from Talk Business shows that while 65 percent of Arkansas voters have a favorable opinion of the governor, only 29 percent would be positively influenced by his endorsement of a state legislative candidate. And with President Obama leading the Democratic ticket this year and not Beebe, there will be a consider lack of coattails for candidates down the ballot.
The ads are accompanied by a campaign from the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee, which is sending out some dishonest mailers that criticize Republican candidates’ votes against the Revenue Stabilization Act supported by the governor last year.
These votes were not against a balance budget or for cutting millions from education as the attack pieces claim. Instead, the lawmakers voted against Beebe’s budget because they favored an alternative that included a slightly tighter budget than the one that ultimately passed.
It’s campaign season and these campaigns are fairly typical for what voters expect this time of year. But be careful when either side tells you it wants to move the state forward while the other guys want to take it backward.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com