Columns » John Brummett

With friends like these

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John Riggs, scion of the tractor empire in Little Rock, once was a briefly rising state senator. He fell in with Mike Beebe's old Senate clique and served as majority leader when Beebe was president pro tem. Riggs led the fight for a beer tax to sustain prekindergarten education when Mike Huckabee typically bailed.

Then Riggs got redistricted in 2001 into a majority black district in central Little Rock, and beaten. Now he's chairman of the board of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a left-leaning group that fights for the working poor on issues like a higher minimum wage and ARKids First, the latter of which it concocted.

He stopped by the other day with Rich Huddleston, the group's executive director, to discuss Arkansas Advocates' agenda for this session.

It's a tricky agenda, or, more precisely, one necessitating delicate politics.

The group loves all this attention to helping the working poor. But it has never believed that removing or phasing down the sales tax on groceries is the best way. Taking 3 cents per dollar off a poor working man's grocery taxes might save his family of four a third of what it would save from an earned income tax credit designed as a percentage of the federal earned income tax credit.

An earned income tax credit provides an outright tax credit for wages up to a certain level. That means the low-income working man is earning tax credits, not incurring tax liability, as he draws wages at the low end.

If his credits end up outpacing his tax owed for a year, he gets the extra in cold, hard cash. Twenty-two states have chosen to piggyback the federal program.

Arkansas Advocates likes the idea of rewarding low-wage work in households with children more than it likes the idea of saving a rich man like Riggs a few dollars on his groceries.

Beebe says that phasing out the grocery tax is a moral imperative. But Riggs said, "I've never understood that." He said the immorality was not the tax itself, but that poor folks had to pay it at the same rate as the rich man. An earned income tax credit would mitigate that, you see.

Riggs is a friend of Beebe, and Arkansas Advocates dares not get in a position of opposing a friendly governor trying to keep a campaign promise and do a good turn on the grocery tax.

So, what to do?

Huddleston said the group would distribute literature explaining its preference for an earned income tax credit, and, if called to testify by a committee chairman, express that preference orally. But he said the group would cling to this position: We're not against phasing down the grocery tax, and we are not asking anybody to vote against it. We're simply saying that we prefer something else.

Riggs said he thought everything would work out. He said Beebe's grocery tax bill probably won't pass the Senate.
"I don't think there's a majority there," he said.

When it doesn't pass, Riggs said, Arkansas Advocates will be free to proceed full speed ahead for the earned income tax credit.

"John Riggs said that?" Sen. Jack Critcher, the Senate president pro tem, replied when I relayed the preceding prediction from a former colleague.

Critcher has expressed reservations about repealing the grocery tax, and I asked him if he shared Riggs' assessment of the prospects. He paused, then said, "It's  real close."

Both Riggs and Critcher are very wrong if Sen. Bobby Glover of Carlisle can be believed when he says he'll file the governor's food tax reduction with 29 co-sponsors. That's unless senators intend to sponsor a bill they'll end up opposing, which, actually, has been known to happen.

Meantime, I wanted Riggs to understand that I intended to quote him as predicting that his pal Beebe's very policy centerpiece won't pass.

"I guess I'll be getting a call," he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: After this column went to press for our print edition, Brummett posted the following item Wednesday on his blog:

Sen. Bobby Glover will soon put in Beebe's proposed grocery tax halving. He'll reportedly have 30, count 'em, 30, sponsors. That's of 35 senators. Please pre-emptively disregard, then, the quote from former senator John Riggs, now board chairman of Arkansas Advocates for Children, in my column in the morning in many fine newspapers in which Riggs will rather embarrassingly predict that Beebe's bill can't pass the Senate. Forget, too, the responding observation by Jack Critcher, president pro tem, that the Senate vote on the food tax will be close. It looks like it'll be a slam dunk, saving the real fight for Speaker Benny Petrus' alternative in the House. And it'll probably be a fast-track slam dunk. Six of the aforementioned sponsors will sit on the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee, which probably will hold a special order of business on the grocery tax Monday morning. A blog turns out to be a convenient thing to have when your newspaper column is already reduced to newsprint in selected places, but, as it happens, comically awry in one respect or another.

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