Columns » John Brummett

Mike Beebe, lone populist

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I’m trying to get a handle on how Mike Beebe, champion of the business establishment and a budgeting pragmatist nonpareil, came to be the brave lone champion of taking the regressive sales tax off working people’s groceries.

Here’s what I think happened. This is merely a scenario, partly informed and partly concocted.

Beebe was meeting with his political consultants to chart his race for governor. They told him that the super-legislator reputation he enjoyed among insiders and a few friendly journalists — the very foundation upon which he’d been anointed as the great Democratic gubernatorial hope — wouldn’t do him a bit of good in a governor’s race. In fact, it might hurt.

They told him he needed to define himself as a friend of the rural common man. It happened that he’d raised a ton of money from the insiders and could afford to do that.

He went on television early to tell the compelling true story of his extremely humble beginnings as son of an unmarried waitress, a boy born in a tarpaper shack in a little community that’s a spot in the road in northeastern Arkansas.

But biography was only part of it. He needed an issue that would ally him with this “little guy” for whom he would vow in his commercials to fight.

Taking the sales tax off groceries polled well and it deftly combined conservative interests in general tax cutting with populist and liberal interests in giving the poor working man a break.

The consultants wondered if Beebe had a record on the issue. Why, sure. Beebe had voted for removing or reducing the grocery tax three or four times in 20 years as a state senator.

Sometimes it was with a proviso that the money had to be made up elsewhere. Once it was with a “poison pill” by which the tax would stay if natural revenue growth slowed. Never had Beebe been out front on the issue. To the contrary, he’d been the guy in the Joint Budget Committee preaching that you had to be responsible about what you cut so that you could meet essential services.

No matter, said the consultants. It was a good issue. He’d voted for it. He believed in it. The giant surplus provided a fiscally plausible opening. Run with it.

Some of Beebe’s friends were underwhelmed. In September, an East Arkansas farmer said to me, “I told him he ought to start worrying about the price of rice instead of some silliness about the grocery tax.”

Beebe’s opponent, Asa Hutchinson, tried to trump Beebe by vowing to eliminate the grocery tax altogether.

That allowed Beebe to have the best of both worlds. He advocated phasing out the tax to help his “little guy.” But he resisted Hutchinson’s less responsible position to end the tax all at once. That made his grocery tax position the lesser of evils in the minds of his establishment allies.

Now he’s governor. One thing to know is that he’s a promise-keeper. He will fight for a significant grocery tax reduction, maybe a bigger one than you think.

Will he do so from obligation or principle? I suspect some principle and more obligation.

He faces a real fight. I can’t find anybody altogether fired up about this, but I can find many who fret about it.

Sen. Jack Critcher of Batesville was telling me that it worried him to carve out a significant piece of the budget with the chance of a slowdown looming. Sen. Shane Broadway of Bryant was telling me that what worried him was that state fiscal officials don’t know exactly how much the state gets from the grocery tax and that it will be hard to do a reliable budget if you reduce it.

For Beebe to stand in front of these and other legislators and boldly propose this tax reform will be akin to a veteran actor going against type to take on a new kind of role.

Let’s hope it’s not like Sylvester Stallone that time he tried comedy.

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