Columns » John Brummett

Look out, Win Paul’s talking

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If I had Win Paul Rockefeller’s money, I wouldn’t be running for governor and spending a perfectly lovely Saturday evening eating hotel banquet fare with a roomful of newspaper people. At the least, I’d have gone out of my way not to wind up seated next to me. Understand that I like and admire Rockefeller. He is somewhat clumsy socially, but he tries earnestly and reveals at times an approximation of a self-effacing sense of humor. His boyish affinity for gadgetry and insider acronyms is oddly charming. I applaud his adoption of children and his devotion to the Boy Scouts. There’s nothing affected about him that I can see. He clearly treasures his late daddy’s memory, as well he should. I say all that to try to soften the rest of what I’m going to say, which is that Win Paul’s performance the other evening before the state’s newspaper editors in a quasi-debate with Asa Hutchinson, his opponent in the looming Republican gubernatorial primary, was so faltering as to be uncomfortable to any sensitive beholder. Maybe the first sign of trouble was when Rockefeller asked Jim Edwards, the Camden newspaperman who headed the editors’ association and would moderate the forthcoming quasi-debate, whether his and Hutchinson’s responses to questions from the floor would be on or off the record. I sensed that Edwards was momentarily dumbstruck, so I piped in that one would be hard-pressed to speak as a gubernatorial candidate before newspaper editors and not get quoted. “Just asking — doesn’t hurt to make sure,” Rockefeller said. When it was time to start, he said to the half-dozen of us at this table: “I’m always ready for show time. Just maybe not prime time.” Did I mention that he’s prophetic, too? Rockefeller got up and shared his campaign theme. It’s that at least one report has shown Arkansas to have a tax system that isn’t business-friendly. So, he wants to appoint a commission to dissect that code and come up with a new one, then get the people to vote it up or down. There was an obvious question: Mr. Rockefeller, don’t you have an obligation as a candidate for governor to be more specific about what taxes are business unfriendly and in need of reduction or repeal, and which ones might be raised to neutralize the fiscal impact? He replied that this was only May. But then some-one re-asked the question, essentially, and Rocke-feller wound up think-ing out loud that maybe we could raise a tax he couldn’t quite think of for a minute — he said the word he was looking for had to do with extraction of natural resources. I was mouthing “severance taxes,” and then it came to him. It’s a worthy policy proposal, but there were two evident problems. One was that he’d just said we had a business-unfriendly tax structure, and now he was saying we might raise a tax that business pays. And a lot of Republican primary voters will come from gas-rich western Arkansas where people won’t want to pay higher severance taxes, a point that Hutchinson, who is so much better on his feet, didn’t miss. He pounced to say the last thing we need to do is raise severance taxes. Asked about school consolidation, Rockefeller said nice things about a failed bill by state Sen. Ruth Whitaker of Cedarville to have only one school district per county. Asked if he was endorsing that bill, Win Paul remarked, in a failed attempt at clever evasiveness, that as lieutenant governor he was merely the presiding officer, not a voting member, of the Senate. “Yeah, but you’re running for governor,” I heard the questioner say as the session was mercifully ended. On the street two days later, I ran into a Rockefeller supporter who said the good thing was that Win Paul had plenty of money to fix by next May any early podium stumbles. He might need to budget liberally, as he is certainly able.

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