UPDATE: Kochs' effort to take over Arkansas legislature | Arkansas Blog

UPDATE: Kochs' effort to take over Arkansas legislature

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CHEERS: Actor John Ratzenberger speaks to small Searcy crowd during recent AFP bus tour
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  • CHEERS: Actor John Ratzenberger speaks to small Searcy crowd during recent AFP bus tour

ON THE BUS: Oelke (center) at bus tour stop in Monticello.
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  • ON THE BUS: Oelke (center) at bus tour stop in Monticello.
The Washington Post today provides major attention to a topic that's only been developed on the fringes in Arkansas this election season (though I believe you might have seen a word or three thousand here about it):

It's the Koch billionaires' effort to take over the Arkansas legislature.

The Post article notes the $1 milion the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity is devoting to flipping enough seats in the legislature for a Republican majority. Reporter T.W. Farnam joined a recent AFP bus tour around the state with paid appearances by a former B actor, John Ratzenberger from the "Cheers" series. The tour is led by the Kochs' paid state director, Teresa Oelke of Rogers, who employs others full-time including the wife of Republican state Rep. Nate Bell.

Why Arkansas? Farnam uses Arkansas as a takeoff for a much bigger picture — the Kochs are going to spend $100 million in 35 states. ONE HUNDRED MILLION. THIRTY-FIVE STATES.

Who needs Congress when you control the majority of state legislatures, each one stocked with fire-breathing adherents to the Tea Party movement also oiled with Koch and other corporate money, each intent on stopping universal health care, for example, if Congress will not?

In Arkansas, Oelke and others are focusing their efforts against about a dozen Democratic state legislators who supported a proposed ballot measure to raise the tax on diesel fuel.

Among them is Robert Thompson, who represents Paragould in the state Senate and says the tax was never even put before voters. Such opposition is a new experience for Thompson, who ran unopposed in his last race here in northeastern Arkansas and faced only a primary opponent four years earlier.

“You didn’t have outside money coming in,” Thompson said, noting that a little money goes a long way in a state legislative race. “If any outside group comes in and spends $10,000, that’s a big chunk of what the candidates are going to spend.”

The Post notes the secrecy that AFP enjoys.

Detractors charge that AFP, far from grass-roots, is a well-funded “AstroTurf” organization shilling for its corporate patrons and rich donors. But it is impossible to determine that, because the group does not have to publicize its finances or donors. Oelke and other officials counter that the money spent here is raised in the state, and they point to grass-roots supporters, which Oelke numbers at 63,000 in Arkansas.

In Paragould, the anti-Obama tour was not crowded with volunteers, just five paid staff members, including the driver. When the bus stopped in Jonesboro, more than 100 people came out.

The group has made an impact on the state legislature: In the May primaries, two GOP senators lost their seats to conservatives after AFP helped mobilize opposition to moderate Republicans.

The Post also found an illustration of the classic Arkansas voter, one who votes against his own self-interest.

Daniel Ray, for example, got fired up at the rally in Paragould, saying he’s sick of federal government spending.

“I don’t think this election term I could vote for any Democrat,” said Ray, 35, who is “ashamed to say” he took a state government job for the benefits it offered for his family.

Ray, the father of four boys, knows Thompson and helped vote him into office, but said he’ll support the challenger this time, out of frustration with Democrats in Washington and Thompson’s refusal to denounce them.

“I don’t think you can be associated with someone with those values and not stand against them,” Ray said. “I don’t see him doing that and it offends me.”

Ray (maybe this person — if so, the pay is low enough to qualify him for all sorts of those nasty federally provided benefits) will be rewarded, if the AFP is successful, perhaps with the loss of a job in government strangled by Koch tax cuts for the wealthy.

NOTED: Gov. Mike Beebe's blast of the out-of-state Kochs' purchase of the state on his radio address last week.

UPDATE: As luck has it, Ernie Dumas' column this week lays bare the political flimflam being orchestrated by Koch billions. It's on the jump. It takes apart the Koch/GOP misrepresentations on where Arkansas ranks in taxation. Per capita — without adjustments to skew the numbers — we're 47th.

By Ernest Dumas

People may be suckers for agreeable fantasies, but when it comes to their government they prefer to believe the worst. That impulse explains the big media campaign by Americans for Prosperity to persuade voters that government leaders in Arkansas are taking their fine old state down to ruin.

Democrats, see, have generally been in charge in Arkansas and the TV commercials are supposed to give a big lift to Republicans running for legislative seats and also those running for Congress, as if they needed it.

The ads by Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit run largely by two of the three multibillionaire Koch brothers, say Arkansas state and local governments have driven up taxes and debt so high the past few years that people and jobs are fleeing the state.

All of it is laughably and provably false, but people in every state, including Arkansas, tend to believe their taxes are higher than those in other places. Arkansans have believed that, even during all the decades when the state ranked dead last in state and local taxes per capita and out of sight of the 49th state.

Governor Beebe took umbrage at the commercials last week although it didn’t mention him or the Democratic Party. As long as the ads don’t say straight out whom to vote for or against, Americans for Prosperity does not have to say where the ad money comes from. It’s educational, not political, so the U. S. Supreme Court says that’s OK.

Beebe took the clever tack that the ads were trashing Arkansas, sort of like when Governor Mike Huckabee went on a New York radio show and called his home state a “banana republic.”

The ads did seem to fly in the face of recent history. Arkansas’s unemployment and growth rates have been better than the nation and most nearby states. It is one of three states that have run surpluses rather than cutting services or raising taxes, although it did so thanks to President Obama’s 2009 stimulus program, which saved the state $725 million in Medicaid expenses over three years. Beebe pointed out that since he became governor in 2007 state taxes have been slashed a net of $730 million, mostly by lowering the sales tax on groceries from 6 to 2 percent.

The AFP ads are nothing new. Lobby groups and people not in power raise the same issue decade after decade, often using the same suspect sources. The same dynamic occurs in nearly every state—taxes are always higher than other places, and the state will prosper if you lower mine. Still, it needs to be countered every time.

But first, let’s acknowledge a small truth in the AFP ads. State taxes and debt did rise significantly from 1999 through 2006. But the governor who pushed all those taxes and new debt was Mike Huckabee, a Republican.

He raised more taxes—three sales tax increases, a temporary personal and corporate income tax increase, motor fuel taxes, tobacco taxes, liquor taxes, a giant tax on nursing home residents, and others—and increased the state debt more than any governor in Arkansas history. He coerced Democratic and Republican legislators and, at one point, the voters in going along with the taxes and borrowing.

But back to the facts. The AFP ads, using figures from the business- oriented Tax Foundation, says Arkansas this year has the 14th highest per- capita tax burden in the country and a worse-than-average business tax climate.

The Tax Foundation doesn’t rely on the actual taxes collected by each state; that’s too simple. It constructs a theory about taxes and formulas to implement it so that states with income taxes tend to look worst. If you add all the taxes actually collected by the state and local governments and divide the total by the population—you can do the numbers at home—Arkansas comes out not 14th but 47th among the states.

All the surrounding states are higher. Now, the states distribute the tax burden in different ways, and Arkansas does it most unfairly, putting it most heavily on working folks with modest incomes with sales and excise taxes. But real numbers are the only way to measure each state’s tax policy.

The Tax Foundation abuses poor states like Arkansas unmercifully. It says Arkansas levies a 3-percent surtax on corporation income, a brief tax that the Democratic Arkansas legislature repealed in 2005. It assigns to Arkansas taxpayers a share of the mineral severance taxes collected in other states like Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming. See, since Alaska’s 22.5 percent production tax on oil and gas (thanks, Governor Sarah Palin!) is paid by the producers and not by local people, the Tax Foundation assigns those taxes to people in other states, like Arkansas, that consume the petrochemical products. Florida levies a high sales tax but the Tax Foundation says tourists pay it so it doesn’t count as much of a per-capita tax for Floridians.

You will note that states without income taxes show up as low-tax states in Tax Foundation rankings although the actual numbers show them as high-tax states.

There is perversity in Americans for Prosperity using Tax Foundation formulas, which favor state governments like Alaska and Texas that get their money from high mineral taxes. The Kochs hate taxes on oil, gas and coal production, where they got their fortunes. They led the way in blocking Arkansas from levying a meaningful gas severance tax.

Workers are the packhorses of the state and local government tax systems, and the Kochs, their brethren and the politicians they elect are going to keep it that way.


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