Columns » John Brummett

Taxpayers 1, tax receivers 0

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Gov. Mike Beebe declared that his budget was as low it could go without forcing painful reductions in essential services. But then, only four days into the session, our newly Republicanized state Legislature found painless savings.

It was that state and district judges and prosecuting attorneys can live adequately — painlessly, let us reasonably assume — on their current six-figure salaries, from $100,000 and up for prosecutors to $156,000 for the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

That is to say that these officers of our courts could go without the 1.86 percent cost-of-living raises contained for them in the draft of the first bill that gets passed every session, which is the general appropriation bill for state constitutional officers.

Owing to political smartness, the bill provided no raises for the governor and legislators. But it did contain that little upward adjustment for judges and prosecutors sought with political tone-deafness by the Arkansas Judicial Council.

The bill got voted out in that form Wednesday by the Joint Budget Committee, mostly as a result of the business-as-usual inertia by which state government budgets have been made for decades.

But then some in the heavily reconfigured general legislative population — Republicans and some Democrats — rose up. Business was not conducted as usual, at least in the morning freshness of the session, before the assembly line of lawmaking gets cranking at warp speed.

So the bill got sent back to Joint Budget for reconsideration, which will take place Wednesday.

These raises presumably will have to be stricken if the bill — the vital starting point for the session, which always becomes Act 1 — is to garner the adequate majority on the floors of the House and Senate.

These are budget savings amounting only to thousands of dollars, a few misty raindrops on the ocean. Yet it will not be so minimal, but serious meddling, if this same principle — that tax receivers should not get more money if recession-beset taxpayers are not getting more — gets applied to a broader range of state employees.

Beebe has recommended for state employees the same 1.86 cost-of-living increase that put the well-paid judges and prosecutors in the uneasy glare of this spotlight. But here is a prediction: Not all state employees will get it.

Lower-income employees will receive it, and should. Perhaps nearly all employees will get it. But I would not bet right now on the prospects for a raise for any high-level state employee drawing a top-tier salary, a Grade 99 job they call it in the pay grid.

If I am right about what may happen, then we would be starting to talk about real savings in the budget, maybe amounting to a few million dollars. That might be enough to pay for one of the tax cuts that Beebe has been saying we cannot afford, such as the break on the used car tax.

I proclaim these developments welcome, presenting raw old-fashioned populism by which taxpayers get elevated over tax receivers, which is what the extraordinary election in November was mostly about.

But beware. There can be danger.

A weak economy puts greater strain on certain government services — Medicaid, for example. Sometimes, then, tax receivers will require more for the very reason that taxpayers have less.

It is very simple to understand: If you lose your job, then you move from a beleaguered taxpayer to a needy tax receiver.

These fired-up new legislators owe it to the populist and tax-saving mandates that elected them to do the harder work — harder than telling a judge to live with his $140,00 a year.

They need to consider and embrace Beebe's wise notions for long-term reforms producing savings of efficiency in Medicaid and in prisons.

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