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Headlines lately from the legislative session have had to do with reducing women to fetus vessels, keeping tenants from having any rights and inviting hogs to poop in our drinking water.

Any Arkansas legislative session comes down mostly to grandstanding, reception-going, merging state government with the Southern Baptist Convention and protecting those doing well enough, never mind those who aren't.

Meanwhile, in the background, the session's end game is beginning on its essential matter, which is state government financing, meaning money.


What I've been trying to track lately in the context of money is the nervy little maneuver by state Sen. Jim Hendren last week.

He assembled most of the outnumbered Democrats and some of his fellow Republicans to announce a bill to raise taxes on tobacco and e-cigarette products and use the money to give working poor people an earned income tax credit.

He lined up 17 Senate sponsors and 40 House sponsors, including all 24 Democrats. The House leadership responded basically by saying, "What the heck? Where did this come from? How did he come down here and get 40 sponsors from our guys?"

It turned out there'd already been friction between Hendren and the House leadership. They've not quite worked in the harmonious singularity that someone described in a pre-session magazine article a couple of months ago.

That back story has had to do with Amendment 79, which took effect in 2001.

In those days, a gadfly in Fort Smith named Oscar Stilley was threatening to get an initiative on the ballot to do away with property taxes.

We rank high on sales taxes and income taxes. Yet Oscar was waging holy war against our lowest taxes in state-by-state comparison.

While low, property taxes underwrite county governments.

Alarmed legislative powers in 2000 cooked up a pre-emptive Amendment 79 to grant a homestead real property tax credit and reimburse counties for that lost revenue from a half-cent sales tax.

The voters passed the amendment. They raised the state's most regressive tax to pay for reductions in the state's least-regressive tax. Sometimes things can make no cosmic sense but plenty of circumstantial sense.

The sales tax to compensate counties for the homestead credit has produced an overage, even with this session's increase in the credit from $350 to $375.

Idle fund overages can be dangerous with state legislators lurking around. (See: Federal penitentiary.)

Leaders in the House--Speaker Matthew Shepherd, Revenue and Tax Committee chairman Joe Jett and Rep. Lanny Fite--have wanted to lock-box that money as a reserve fund for emergencies.

Hendren, the Senate president pro tem, has proposed otherwise. He wants to use a portion to buy voting machines and maybe do a couple of other things.

Weeks ago, I started hearing House grumbling that Hendren was getting a little full(er) of himself in wanting to spend that money. And I was hearing Hendren grumble that the essence of Amendment 79, politically needed though it was in 2001, was regressive tax policy.

He was saying that, as long as the homestead credit was getting paid with money to spare, we ought to use a little of the taxpayers' general sales taxes if there were pressing general needs, like voting machines.

When you're cutting rich folks' income taxes, coins found beneath the sofa cushions can be useful.

A compromise seems in the works to fund the voting machines and a couple of other small items and lock down the balance after that, leaving about $40 million in a pot that would, if undisturbed, grow year to year.

Now to Hendren's effort to tax tobacco and vaping and e-cigarettes to give the working poor a credit on their income taxes:

It's a noble concept that taxes unhealthiness and rewards work. I applaud Hendren even if it's true that he was mainly looking tactically for Democratic support as he dared to take on the tobacco lobby, his greater interest.

I can now say with a fair amount of certainty that the bill is dead even if it squeezed through the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.

Speaker Shepherd is against it. He most likely will assign it to the Rules Committee, any speaker's personally appointed fiefdom, which will oblige his opposition.

Shepherd told me Tuesday that he didn't like the proposal's emergence from left field late in the session, disrupting an orderly ending to a session that had already taken monumental actions on taxes, and that neither the tobacco tax nor the earned income tax credit had been recommended by a task force.

So a session's late chance to redeem itself even in small measure seems lost.

On taxes, this will be the General Assembly that cut them by millions for rich people, raised them on working people buying essential motor fuel, and reserved its valiant last stand to protect big tobacco against the working poor.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 03/21/2019

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: It comes down to money

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