Columns » John Brummett

It's all good, man

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We must maintain perspective, for times such as these are indeed rare.

Our centrist governor-elect, Mike Beebe, carries long alliances with special business interests. Our center-right incoming speaker of the House of Representatives, Benny Petrus of Stuttgart, differs only in that his cozy alliances with special business interests date only a few years, not a couple of decades.

Yet what they’re arguing about — amid ol-boy pats on the back, of course — is which has the better idea to help the poor working man, the “little guy” of Beebe’s television commercials.

It’s all good, man.

One way or another, it would appear that we’re coming upon a legislative session that won’t be mostly about utility companies trying to deregulate themselves or race tracks becoming casinos or greedy developers threatening water supplies.

(Be warned, though, that the latter issue lingers and sometimes the special business interests come as thieves in the night.)

For the moment, it appears the session’s centerpiece will be helping the low-income working man who struggles to keep his kids fed and clothed and educated and doctored.

Beebe is wedded to phasing out the grocery tax. He made a campaign promise and he’s a promise-keeper. His position is that the tax is simply a bad one and must be stomped out.

Petrus responds that if you truly want to help the low-income working man, there’s a way more targeted to him. After all, rich folks and tourists buy groceries, too, and the state’s very poorest residents, those on welfare, already get a sales tax exemption on most food stamp acquisitions.

Anyway, who’s to say the grocery tax reductions won’t be offset by supermarket price increases, rendering the working man back where he started?

So, Petrus says, we could better help the low-income working man and his family by giving him strategically designed income tax breaks.

You could raise the minimum income level for paying income taxes. You could reduce the rate applied to the lowest taxable incomes. You could create an earned income tax credit whereby a working man gets a direct tax credit for wages up to a certain level, and, if the credit exceeds his tax obligation, then he gets the overage in cold cash. Or, you could put a line for a food tax rebate on the state income tax form for persons below a certain income level.

The earned income tax is probably best, since it rewards work. And the grocery tax phase-out is probably the least best, since a lot of us would get a break we don’t really need.

But it’s all good, man.

There’s a flaw in Petrus’ idea: The senior citizen living off a monthly Social Security check not of sufficient size to require paying state income taxes would get nothing from income tax relief while continuing to get hit at the grocery store for basic sustenance.

Petrus says he needs to work on that.

No politician would dare say it, but I will: While helping seniors is a worthy idea, and maybe we can do it, sometimes you must establish priorities.

Frankly, if forced by fiscal considerations into ranking priorities, a working man trying to raise kids on a meager salary rates a higher priority than a retired person getting a Social Security check, Medicare and, now, a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The sound you hear is that of the ton of bricks that the AARP just brought down on my head.

You’re saying I’ll be old myself someday. And I’m saying yes, someday soon. When and if the old 65th rolls around, I’ll want the following things from my government, in order: Medicare, the Social Security check I’m due, insured home health services to keep me out of a nursing home and, last if not least, and if there’s money left over, relief on those tax add-ons at the bottom of my supermarket receipt.

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