Columns » Ernest Dumas

Big trucks roll over Beebe, legislature

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It is nearly impossible to believe that a powerful lobbying group could be false-hearted and harder still to believe that the Arkansas legislature and Governor Beebe could be rolled by a big special interest, but we were left last week to contemplate those possibilities.

It seemed almost too good, too noble, to be true at the time, but the Arkansas Trucking Association went to the state Highway Commission, the legislature and the governor last winter volunteering to pay a higher tax on diesel, five cents a gallon. It rarely happens that someone volunteers to pay higher taxes. The primary highway routes that the trucks travel are crumbling under the pounding of the heavy rigs, and the new levy on diesel would support a $1.1 billion bond issue to repair and improve them. Fuel-efficient vehicles and high gasoline prices are shrinking the state's maintenance revenues.

But the industry wanted a little tax concession to balance their sacrifice.

So in the spring the association worked out a deal with the legislature and governor. The industry would support the tax increase at a special election that Governor Beebe would call. The quid pro quo was that the legislature would pass and Beebe would sign an act to exempt their big tractors and trailers from state sales and use taxes.

Many anti-tax Republicans supported the diesel tax increase because it would be left to the voters and because there would be a tax cut in the bargain, too.

But last week the association told Beebe that he should not call the election on the diesel tax because it had conducted a poll showing that Arkansas voters were overwhelmingly opposed to the trucks paying more taxes for tearing up the roads. The election, you see, would simply be a waste of taxpayers' money.

But it wants to keep the tax exemption, which it now views as a separate matter from the diesel tax. The sales tax exemption is not subject to the people's vote. That law is on the books, though the legislature could repeal it.

People of a low and suspicious nature smelled a rat. The truckers merely wanted a tax cut and the offer of a diesel-tax hike was a ruse to get it. But the industry says that is not so. The association purported to be disappointed that the electorate was against the truckers paying higher taxes to repair the roads they damaged.

That could be the case. Or some in the industry might have awakened to the realities that their nobler elements had created.

Governor Beebe was making no accusations, but he seemed to be a trifle irked. He said if there was not going to be a diesel tax there would not be a tax exemption either. He would ask the legislature to repeal it. The legislative sponsors of the bills said they would seek repeal, too. But getting a majority vote to repeal a tax cut will not be a snap even if that was the understanding all along. Not many Republicans are going to vote to end a tax break for an industry. If the industry goes to the mat it can keep its exemption.

If the exemption took money away from the schools, medical care and colleges, the industry would win that battle easily. But a proviso in the act transfers money from the highway fund to the general fund to offset the loss of sales tax revenues. The highway lobby will not take that loss sitting down.

A suspicious person would wonder about the truckers' poll. To the average motorist, the big tractor rigs are the bane of the roadways. It makes little sense that he would not want the big trucks to pay to repair the roads they tear up. The alternative is that motorists or the general public ultimately pay higher taxes to get the work done.

Polls can be made to show whatever the sponsor wants them to show. People know that the heavy rigs do the road damage, but they are not attuned to the arcane details of highway legislation. They respond to how much the polltaker tells them. For example, does the polltaker tell them that farmers would be exempt from paying the tax on their diesel fuel and that most of the taxes would be paid by the big trucks?

Governor Beebe ought to call the election anyway. Without the big trucks paying a small part of their share of road improvements, who in the world will vote to pay higher taxes themselves, through a general sales tax, to build a system of superhighways that could not be maintained? That is the second part of the program, and it will automatically go to the voters in 2012.

If the trucking industry genuinely favors the diesel tax, who would spend the big money to defeat it—well, other than Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire boys club founded by the billionaire Koch brothers? It would stir the tea-party faithful to get out and vote against a tax on a big industry, but who else?

If the anti-tax hysteria is as pervasive as the truckers say and people are blinded to their own self-interest, we are in worse shape than we imagined.

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