Columns » Ernest Dumas

To govern conservatively



It will not be long before the big new conservative cohort in the Arkansas legislature — old-line Republicans, Tea Partiers and reactionary Democrats — will be at loose ends and looking for fresh conservative causes.

They constitute a sizable majority in the legislature that will assemble at the Capitol in two weeks and they will be looking to make a difference. But you can expend only so much initiative punishing gays and undocumented immigrants and their children or stymieing people who can't or won't participate in the health-insurance system. All that can be done in only three or four weeks.

Besides, those do nothing to advance the truly substantive conservative causes: making things fair for beleaguered small businesses and entrepreneurs, protecting market competition and pruning our ever-expanding state government.

That's where we come in. Our encyclopedic services include legislative programs and guidance across the political spectrum, including our pro-business conservative friends.

Let's get to the easiest first. A conservative legislature could implement the suggestions of the Arkansas Alternative Energy Commission, which has proposed a couple of ways to encourage entrepreneurs and investors in renewable energy to produce power for our electrical grid.

One is what is called a feed-in tariff, which would regulate how the big electric distribution companies take and compensate for power produced by individuals and businesses that use solar, wind, biomass, geothermal or other renewable sources of energy. The big out-of-state holding companies, the coal and oil cartels and some of the liberal co-ops won't like it because they want to decide where colonies like Arkansas get their electricity, and they want it to be from coal, oil and gas and from their own boilers, not clean and renewable sources and resourceful Arkansas people.

It is a baby step that won't shake up the energy industry or solve our long-range energy problems, but it would give Arkansans cheaper and more reliable power over the long run, stimulate new businesses and jobs and obviate the need for more big, costly and polluting generating plants. It is a conservationist's dream.

Another way that the legislature could befriend small Arkansas businesses is to level the playing field against big multistate corporations that compete unfairly by avoiding the income taxes that Arkansas entrepreneurs have to pay. That would be by joining most other states that levy corporate income taxes and requiring the multistate corporations to use an accounting process called "combined reporting" when they compute their Arkansas taxes.

The accounting firms have taught the big corporations how they can avoid paying taxes on their profits in Arkansas and get a leg up on the little stores they compete with. They artificially shift their profits earned in Arkansas to the books of a subsidiary with a mail drop in Delaware, Nevada or another tax haven and pay almost no Arkansas tax, giving them a sizable advantage over the Arkansas-owned nursery, hardware and dry-goods stores with which they compete. Most states caught on to the dodge and adopted combined reporting.

Phil Jackson, a conservative businessman from Berryville, spent his eight years in the state Senate trying to bring some fairness to the tax system by stopping the tax scofflaws, but the big boys beat him down. Some energetic Tea Party Republican ought to shoulder his yoke.

The new GOP caucus could join cause with Mr. Republican, Sheffield Nelson, and make those rich Texas investors pay their fair share of maintenance for tearing up Arkansas roads and aquifers and taking our natural gas to fire the boilers and heat the homes of the Ohio Valley and other eastern points. The Texas boys put one over on Gov. Beebe and the legislature two years ago by sneaking in provisions of the severance tax law that let them take enormous quantities of shale gas out of the state with a smidgen of tax in return. They reap huge profits and Arkansans are left to tax themselves to pay for the corrupted roads and land.

Nelson, the former state GOP chairman, national committeeman and twice the party's standard bearer, wants to try again to make the big Texas companies pay Arkansans a modest compensation for exploiting their natural heritage. A simple majority of the legislature could raise the tax rate on most of the gas by a negligible 1 percent, which would still go a long way toward eliminating the need for higher gasoline or sales taxes to fix the highways.

Finally, they could take a cue from the father of modern Arkansas Republicanism, Mike Huckabee, and try to check the mushrooming growth of state prisons. Huckabee left the details on how to do it to the legislature, as was his custom, and neither he nor the lawmakers ever got around to it. Governor Beebe has ordered a study about how to do it because he doesn't want to have to raise taxes to build and operate more prisons, which are already costing us $350 million a year. The study suggests that we stop sending so many non-violent offenders—small drug abusers, check kiters, small-time thieves and the like—to prison for long terms, curtail mandatory sentences for consecutive offenders and make more use of treatment, probation or other supervision options.

Talk about saving the taxpayers' money and scaling down government. That's the way to do it.

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