Columns » Max Brantley

Tax talk one-sided in Arkansas

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette churned up a little weekend enterprise reporting by assessing the possibility of tax cut proposals in the 2012 session of the legislature.

The even-year meeting is the second installment of the fiscal sessions directed by voters by constitutional amendment in 2008. It's supposed to be a quick budget review, not a time for serious new initiatives.

The pitch of the story, however, gives you some idea how successful the Republicans, have been in selling the press and public on the Tea Party narrative. That is, government spending is too great and taxes too high. There is no other story line to consider.

It passes for sober leadership now when a comparatively old guard Arkansas Republican, such as Rep. Davy Carter, expresses a reluctance to discuss tax cuts in 2012. But others, such as Eddie Joe Williams of Cabot and Mark Biviano of Searcy (coincidentally facing tough re-election battles) are fully ready to push for tax cuts in 2012, no matter how unlikely their passage. Williams promises his tax cuts will create jobs. This is meant to imply it will be a cure, with trickledown, for revenue reduction.

We have a decade of proof on the national level that tax cuts don't create jobs. We likewise have years of proof in Arkansas that capital gains tax cuts — the Republican default tax cut — are worthless as economic stimulus. We also have ample proof that giving away tax money to corporations is no economic boon. Yet still we persist, even to the point of giving companies money (think Dassault Falcon) that have reduced their workforce.

Taxes, in some respect, ARE too high. Our present state income tax was progressive when adopted in the mid-1970s. But a top marginal rate of 7 percent for all making more than $25,000 isn't progressive today, given what $25,000 is worth in 2011. Taxes are also too low in some cases. The scheme by which national corporations evade income taxes in Arkansas with bookkeeping tricks is well-known, but impervious to correction on account of the corporate lobby. The severance tax on natural gas doesn't begin to cover even local road damage of the drilling rigs, but the corporate lobby is again organizing to defeat a populist effort to increase it and thus get a meaningful return on depletion of the state's finite gas resource.

The tax code is full of such injustices in need of specific correction. But an overall tax cut? Only a Republican could argue for this with a straight face and silence about what public services would be cut to accommodate a tax break for the wealthy, sure to be the top beneficiary of any major Republican tax cut.

Would it be public schools, which consume about half the state budget and which must comply with the state Supreme Court's adequacy order? Nursing homes, filled with Medicaid-supported elderly? Colleges, where the state's decreasing support has already meant annual tuition increases that far outstrip inflation?

Then there's the prison population. Would a Republican really lead a charge to incarcerate fewer people? It's not likely. Republican legislators are already broadcasting near-daily reports on crimes by recidivist parolees to demonstrate the folly of sentence reductions for drug offenders. (The Republicans are not without basis in asking whether drug courts and expensive private-sector treatment programs will really save much money.)

There is one proven way to reduce at least some justice system expenses. That would be to end capital punishment, with its punishing legal costs. Can I get a Republican witness to this?

Didn't think so.

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