A Democratic primary between two well-financed gubernatorial candidates comes first, but events last week suggested an intriguing outline for a general election contest.
For this to come to pass, Attorney General Mike Beebe has to beat primary opponent Bill Halter, the former Clinton administration Social Security official who’s come home to blow fresh air into the Capitol. Perhaps prompted by Halter’s specifics-laden announcement, Beebe has begun salting a few specifics into his speeches. And that is where things got interesting last week — a sharp contrast between Beebe and the Democratic primary winner’s certain opponent, Republican Asa Hutchinson.
Having certified the ballot title of a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour, Beebe promptly endorsed the measure. Hutchinson danced around the issue, but stopped short (at least by the time I went to press) of endorsing the amendment. Hutchinson opposed an increase in Congress when it mattered and he has also said that he fears Arkansas would be disadvantaged by having a minimum wage higher than those in some other states.
The best available research — a study in New Jersey after a minimum wage increase there against a lower minimum in Pennsylvania — indicates the business climate wouldn’t be harmed by a higher state minimum. Wal-Mart executives, notably, have argued a minimum wage increase is good for them. It puts more disposable income in the hands of people who spend every cent they make.
Forget economic theory. It is simply right to lift the wages of the poorest workers. The current minimum hasn’t changed since 1997, when an hour’s toil still could buy you a square meal and a drink at a downtown cafeteria.
Here’s another populist issue. Beebe said in a speech last week that Arkansas should gradually phase out the sales tax on groceries. Hutchinson agreed that the grocery tax is regressive and said he’d liked to see it go, but he again stopped short of flatly endorsing a phase-out of the tax. He said Beebe’s proposal to do so was an “empty promise.” He also said, as if it took the issue off the table, that voters spoke on the issue in 2002. Not exactly. They rejected an instant and total repeal of the grocery tax that would have required painful budget cuts or other new taxes.
It’s true that Beebe’s sincerity can’t be fully judged without more specifics. No one knows better than Beebe, a legislative veteran, how difficult it will be for the state to adjust to even a gradual repeal. Costs rise inexorably every year. Revenues are not so predictable. Gross revenues actually declined during the 2002-03 recession. The grocery tax now produces about $230 million a year. A four-year phase-out would cost almost $60 million a year, bearable against this year’s $400 million increase in state revenue, but tough in a year of decline. Beebe and Hutchinson also would make this cut more painful by agreeing to repeal the sales tax on manufacturers’ electricity. Since the big manufacturers employ herds of lobbyists with steakhouse credit, that tax break seems more likely to become reality than a balm for the working poor.
The issues have subtle complexities, true. But the 30-second message is simple. Where it stood as I wrote: The Democratic candidate for governor wants to raise the minimum wage and end the sales tax on groceries. The Republican, empathetic noises aside, does not. Which side would you rather be on?