Columns » Ernest Dumas

Tea party a roadblock to new highway tax

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Here's a funny story about the changing times. In the fall of 1965, Gov. Orval Faubus asked legislators at a special session to raise the gasoline tax a penny and a half and the diesel tax 2 cents a gallon to improve roads. It was a cinch because roads were so popular that legislators always lined up supermajorities for motor-fuel taxes or any other tax to fix roads.

But Rep. John Harberson, who represented poor Howard County, voted no. He distrusted the Faubus machine with all that money to build political roads. The next year he headed a delegation of local worthies asking the Highway Commission to widen a highway at Nashville. The commission chairman, Wayne Hampton, interrupted him.

"Just a minute, Mr. Harberson," he barked. "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, Hampton said. The word got back home and the voters turned Harberson out of office for a man who proved to be a more reliable vote for taxes for roads and schools.

Today, that would never happen. Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire Koch brothers' main political-funding arm, claimed to have run a poll this summer showing most Arkansans would vote against their legislator if he or she voted for a gasoline tax. That apparently goes for any tax. The Kochs, who have invested heavily in the legislature and other state offices, oppose all taxes and government activity — unless it benefits their enterprises, like the huge taxpayer subsidy last year for the Blytheville steel mill in which they are big investors.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has a task force that is supposed to tell him by winter how to pay for the highway and bridge work that is idled by flat or shrinking state and federal motor-fuel tax receipts and city and county road and street aid. Its members have met and studied and consulted and despaired. They and the governor face a seemingly impossible political dilemma. A sizable number of Republican lawmakers, the so-called tea-party faction, took a blood oath never to vote for a tax, and all the other Republicans and a few Democrats fear Koch-financed candidates if they vote for a tax or for any government program that could help the poor or that could be linked to President Obama.

Until a while ago, say 2009 (some would say 2001), the Republican Party's take on taxes was that they were an irksome necessity, the price of civilization. Though a distinct minority holds it, the controlling philosophy now is that government is evil and taxation its method of inflicting ruin upon society.

Hutchinson is no one's big-government liberal, but he is finding governing hard under that confinement. It is still a minority of the party in Washington as well as Little Rock, but its scorched-earth dedication holds the national party in thrall. It threatens to shut down half the legislative branch in Washington to get a leadership that will do its bidding and hold the country's fiscal order in ransom.

Hutchinson's situation is not so dire because his party controls the entire executive branch, both legislative houses and, some say, the new Supreme Court. He has been adept at staving off a confrontation with tea partiers over fiscal matters until next year and throwing them a few crumbs, like signing unconstitutional abortion bills, throwing a monkey wrench into the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, and stopping payments to Planned Parenthood for gynecological services to poor women.

Arkansas's constitution is no help, particularly the Futrell amendment, unique among all the states, which allows as few as nine of the state's 135 lawmakers to block most spending bills and taxes. Hutchinson must get around that hurdle to keep the Medicaid expansion for 250,000 people and the state budget in the black and also to get a highway program. (He could convert fuel excise taxes into a sales tax and pass it with a simple majority, giving highways a highly elastic revenue source.)

Moving the 2016 primaries and filing periods up to accommodate Mike Huckabee's presidential hopes may also help Hutchinson. With the filing deadline for office past, a few relieved Republicans at a special session or the regular fiscal session this winter might vote for his cosmetically doctored Obamacare program and gasoline and diesel taxes for the highway program that he needs.

Everyone, including tea partiers, wants a highway program but would prefer that someone else pay for it. A few of them want to take taxes from schools, state health programs and the prisons and give it to highways, but Hutchinson is trying to scrape up funds to avert financial crises in those programs.

The state got a bonanza with Obama's stimulus program in 2009, which pumped more than $400 million into highway work all across the state, including $150 million for the giant Interstates 430-630 interchange in west Little Rock, where soaring flyover lanes are now speeding 100,000 vehicles a day through the old bottleneck. But the tea partiers in the U.S. House are turning off the federal spigot, too.

The only solution to the highway crisis is the same one the legislature has turned to since 1921: fuel taxes. People who use the roads — motorists and commercial interests like shippers and the transportation industry — should pay for them.

Unless you drive a gas-guzzling clunker you are paying fewer taxes for highways than you were 20 years ago, even after Mike Huckabee's string of gas-tax hikes in 1999. Republicans and Democrats alike hopped cheerfully on his big tax and bond program. So did the public. Bill Clinton raised gas taxes four times. The last time, he vetoed a nickel-a-gallon increase because he thought 4 cents was enough. Legislators overrode his veto by a landslide and not one got beat for it.

Those were the days.

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