Columns » Max Brantley

Socialist Arkansas

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Evidence mounts that the business community has sold the public on socialism.

The Little Rock Board of Directors Monday night called an election on a penny worth of proposed sales tax increases including a $38 million outlay to subsidize business development, including a research "park" and Little Rock Port expansion. Mayor Mark Stodola says EVERYBODY in Arkansas is moving toward government-subsidized economic development; why shouldn't Little Rock join the throng?

The economic elites have sold this idea so effectively that polling on the tax increase apparently showed stronger support for government subsidies of private enterprise than it did for a tax to shore up the city's essential services — police, fire, streets, parks.

Virtually all the public discussion Monday was about the economic development angle, including a carefully orchestrated series of pleas for the money from beneficiaries.

Noteworthy: Hugh McDonald, CEO of Entergy's Arkansas affiliate and a former board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in pleading for government handouts to private business, "We need to help ourselves."

By "we," he didn't mean the business community and economic elites. (How's this for "we-ness?" Entergy just moved a big chunk of business away from the Southwest Power Pool, a jobs-rich company headquartered in Little Rock.)

The chamber believes that poor people should pay additional pennies in sales taxes on its hamburgers, beans, utility bills, blue jeans and other necessities so that private business and their predominantly white male executives can enjoy a heftier profit margin. In return, the Chamber of Commerce fights: Civil rights laws; laws that provide legal redress to injured people; universal health care; adequate workers compensation coverage; higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations; labor unions; transparency in government; Barack Obama; most Democratic candidates; public schools, and so on.

Stodola disputes the chamber's influence, never mind its $200,000 unaccountable taxpayer subsidy. Really? The city-financed research park would be run by a board on which the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce gets one of seven statutory seats. No independent community group is so favored, be it the AFL-CIO or Junior League. The mayor's two appointees will be chamber-approved. And I was distressed to learn one of UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson's appointees would be Bob Johnson, the former state senator who fought against protection of the Lake Maumelle watershed and who championed self-interested pork barrel spending.

Some big-time Little Rock businessmen and chamber members agree with me, if not for attribution.

Said one: "I am very pro-business but I worry about the research park — too much too fast.  Why not take one of the city's large empty buildings and try to grow into that building.  I am always skeptical when a private developer gets university and government agencies to sponsor a project without private money.  I hope I am wrong and it is a demand-driven project and not a fee-driven project (real estate fees, design, construction, etc). Remember the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and Victory buildings."

More succinct was this from another chamber member:

"The state is just about the worst judge of a lending opportunity as anyone I could imagine. And I think the same thing about the research park. If it's so necessary, why doesn't the private sector do it?"

There's no proper vote but a yes for the operations portion of the sales tax proposal. There are real needs, too, in the capital portion of the proposal for Sept. 13, but the $38 million field-of-dreams slush fund might prove a deal breaker. Or maybe not. And if so, what's next, a city of Little Rock-financed socialized shopping mall?

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