Columns » Max Brantley

North Little Rock Tea Party

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North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays image
  • North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays

North Little Rock votes on a sales tax increase next week and it seems only fair to give Mayor Pat Hays a little of the attention I gave Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola on his recent push for a penny increase.

Hays is following the Little Rock model. The tax is split in two half-cent proposals — one permanent, one temporary for "capital" expenditures. The increases come with no guarantees, only general promises not backed by law. Hays could take the $15.5 million a year and spend it on retired PT boats for his riverfront fleet if he chose.

The tax will increase the sales tax on a pair of socks or a T-shirt at a North Little Rock Walmart to 9 cents on every dollar — 6 cents state, 1 county, 2 city. Buy $10 worth of burgers at McDonald's and the tax will now be $1.20, counting the 3-cent burger tax.

Little Rock, to its credit, provided more information sooner about its tax, both on its website and in a series of public meetings. Hays is getting the job done with far less exposition, in a brief six-week window.

The speed and lack of information form some of the objection from the Arkansas Tea Party, which is circulating flyers in opposition to the tax. I'm not sure it matters. North Little Rock is friendly — as most of blue collar Arkansas unaccountably has always been — to the regressive sales tax. Everybody pays the same, right? Few stop to think that the poor spend a disproportionate share of their income on taxes on life's necessities — food, clothing, utilities, cars.

But the Tea Party, which I tend to reflexively oppose, has some valid points. One is that in two years the city will have paid off a bond issue on a hydroelectric plant. That will free more than $14 million a year, permanently, almost what the full penny will raise.

An even stronger point is the slush fund criticism. Hays says he'll take $20 million — $20 million! — to buy 2,000 acres on the east side of the city. Perhaps it will be the site to relocate the Arkansas State Fair, anxious to leave a poor neighborhood in Little Rock. Perhaps it will be a "business park." Perhaps he won't buy the land at all. The mayor could just as legally build a parking deck with the tax money for a new downtown hotel or buy another submarine.

The State Fair promise is in particular need of greater inspection. Does moving the fair from one side of the Arkansas River to the other guarantee any economic benefit for the area? Perhaps a marginal amount of sales tax revenue for North Little Rock. But a State Fair with a major event venue will also cannibalize Verizon Arena, just as Verizon cannibalized Barton Coliseum at the State Fair. The bigger "if" about the State Fair concerns the total project cost. The land is almost irrelevant. A Jacksonville group has offered to provide free land. A paid consultant has said a State Fair move would cost $190 million for new structures — and might produce an additional $1 million a year in revenue. Where will the millions for new buildings and infrastructure come from? The dream was once that the federal government would provide it. In these times, it's hard to imagine.

Mayor Hays has imitated Stodola in one important respect. He's wrapped his fanciful wishes inside tangible needs — police, fire and street needs. He understands most voters will respond to these basics and hopes they overlook the slush funds.

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