Nobody else will say it and there’s no cause to be effusive about it but the Arkansas legislature is entitled to a little praise and more than a little understanding.
Whenever the legislative branch and the executive pick a fight with one another, the legislative branch always takes a public thrashing. So it is that Governor Huckabee is enjoying rapturous flattery across the media for standing up for school consolidation and sweeping educational reform while the legislature is razzed for dragging its feet on the same.
But courage doesn’t reside exclusively with the governor or cravenness with the legislature. Taxes, not consolidation, is the paramount issue of the session and the legislature at this writing earns more understanding on that than Huckabee, who hasn’t lifted a hand to help and isn’t sure he’ll even go along with taxes if the legislature does lead.
Before we leave the subject, let this be noted about consolidation. This legislature has enacted more draconian school consolidation measures than any before it: a law that abolishes school districts with fewer than 350 students and another, last spring, that empowers the governor’s proxies at the Education Department to abolish every school district that does not meet the state’s specifications. It does not matter that a few legislators seem not to have known what they were doing and that the governor seems reluctant to use the power. The vast majority of school consolidations the last century occurred administratively. The Education Department negotiated a reduction in school districts from 5,100 to 3,000 in 1928-32 and then, aided by the Depression, reduced them to 1,600 by the end of World War II.
Now the legislature must do the hardest thing that a representative body has to do, raise taxes, which unlike consolidation, actually is a silent mandate from the Supreme Court. Lawmakers have to do it under the worst conditions and under the mistaken belief that certain retribution awaits them from the voters if they do.
It was oh so different when this all began. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, which commands the most fearsome lobby in government, intervened in the school case to ask the Supreme Court to outlaw the state’s sorry schools and announced that it favored a big tax increase to improve education. The preconversion Huckabee, who then opposed consolidation and taxes, denounced the chamber.
He was too hasty. Now the lawmakers are hearing from a phalanx of business lobbyists what the chamber really meant. It will not stand in the way if the legislature sticks it to working stiffs and their families by jacking up the sales tax on commodities but lawmakers will pay with their political careers if they vote to take a dollar out of corporate fiscs or from the pockets of the rich to educate poor children. Joined by the editorial page of the Democrat-Gazette, they came down hard on the House committee considering the first little bill, which would plug one of the many loopholes found by creative accountants to allow multistate corporations the past 10 years to virtually withdraw from the state corporate income tax. Corporate income taxes have been declining the past eight years even as profits soared.
Fear of big business pocketbooks is one thing, fear of average voters is another. They are always more understanding.
There is almost no history in modern Arkansas of voters punishing legislators who vote to raise taxes. An analysis of roll calls on all seven significant tax programs from 1957 through 1989 showed that there was little difference in the re-election rates of those who voted for taxes and those who voted against them and, in fact, a slightly higher percentage of those who voted against them were defeated in the next election than of those who favored them. The omnibus tax program of 1991, Bill Clinton’s last, and the highway tax program of 1997 also produced no discernible backlash at the polls.
Legislators might take some comfort by looking at the most analogous situation to theirs: the 1971 tax program of Gov. Dale Bumpers to finance school improvements. Bumpers said he would not sign a sales tax increase because it landed unfairly on low- and middle-income families. He asked the legislature to raise income taxes to reach high-income taxpayers, cigarette taxes, beer taxes and other excises and to broaden the sales tax base to cover some services, all in separate bills so that legislators had to record a vote for taxes numerous times. Bumpers called legislators to his office and said the tax increases would be his, not theirs.
One of the smallest turnovers in modern times occurred at the next election. Five of the 106 legislators who voted for the centerpiece, the income tax, were defeated and five of the 28 who opposed it went down. Opponents were four times as likely to be defeated.
The difference is that this time the courage will be altogether theirs. No governor will be standing behind them. They should find that exhilarating.