Columns » Ernest Dumas

Pragmatic tack on tax

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John Harberson, a soft-spoken but hardheaded state representative from Howard County, resented the ruthless pressure from Gov. Orval Faubus to pass a penny-a-gallon increase in gasoline taxes and two cents of diesel taxes at a special session of the legislature in 1965. Harberson was one of the few in either house to vote no.

That winter Harberson led a delegation of community leaders to the state Highway Commission to ask that a stretch of road at Nashville be programmed for widening.

“Just a minute, Mr. Harberson,” the highway chairman interrupted. “You said you didn't need any highway work in Howard County.” Harberson protested that he had never said that.

“Oh yes, Mr. Harberson,” the chairman replied. “I have the roll call right here. It says ‘Harberson — no.' ” The delegation was wasting the commission's time, he said.

The momentary humiliation was not lost on the townspeople. Harberson was defeated in the primary the next spring. Voters tended to punish those who voted against the tax far more often than those who voted for it. That has been the pattern whenever the legislature has voted on highway taxes.

Gov. Beebe's methods are gentler than Faubus's and unlike Faubus he doesn't yet own the Highway Commission, but the results are even better. Only weeks before legislators stand for re-election, Beebe has lined up three-fourths or more of the legislature to vote for what may be the largest highway tax program in the state's history. It will be the equivalent of raising the gasoline tax five cents a gallon and perhaps much more.

Beebe has the great advantage of offering a highway-building program that will not cost motorists and the general public a dime. Presuming that lawmakers will keep their commitments to Beebe and approve the tax at a special session March 31, natural gas producers, most of them headquartered in Texas and Oklahoma, will pay a severance tax of 5 percent of the market value of gas produced in Arkansas. The owners of mineral rights will pay some of the tax.

Even at that, the magic is highways as much as it is either Beebe's finesse or the painlessness of the tax. Politically, highways are irresistible. Lawmakers know that they need not fear a public backlash for raising taxes if they are dedicated to roads.

Could Beebe find 75 representatives and 27 senators willing to vote for a major tax on natural gas or on anything if the beneficiary were not the highway program? Not likely. Bill Clinton wanted to raise the gas severance tax in 1983 but he could marshal the three-fourths vote only in the Senate, with Sen. Mike Beebe's critical help. He failed in the House.

When the Highway and Transportation Department issued its last needs study two years ago showing that current highway taxes would fall $15 billion short of meeting the transportation needs the next 10 years, it was accepted as gospel. To Republican opponents of the severance tax it is the holy grail, and they say the severance tax is pointless because it would not come close to meeting highway needs. If you cannot achieve a miracle, why seek mere good works?

The education deficit in the next decade far exceeds $15 billion, but it would not exercise the legislature if the Education Department were to issue a report forecasting that funding trends would shortchange children by $30 billion over the next decade. It took a dozen years and repeated orders from the Arkansas Supreme Court to move the General Assembly and the governor to adopt a modestly financed school program. The state Constitution mandates a modern education system as a basic human right; it does not require the state to provide super highways.

Gov. Beebe's plan to divert 95 percent of the proceeds of the severance tax to state and local transportation diverges from the wise policy established after World War II: User taxes like motor fuels and vehicle registrations should support the transportation system, and taxes on income, consumption and natural resources should support education and the general needs of the people. That remains the better principle, and Sheffield Nelson's original natural gas initiative would have done that. At a tax rate of 7 percent, close to that of other gas-rich states, it would have been fairer in every way.

But Mike Beebe's ultimate virtue is pragmatism. He calculated what could actually be done in the name of highways. The public welfare will finally extract a small price for the exploitation of the state's limited bounty. Purists also can rationalize it this way: The highway lobby was gearing up to siphon sales taxes on vehicle-related services and goods. If the new severance tax were not diverted to highways, the legislature almost surely would reach into the school and general funds for highways in another year or two. It's better this way.

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