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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Poisoning the well

by John Brummett | July 29, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

I've heard of going down swinging, or even kicking and screaming, but Leslie Rutledge is going down sabotaging.

The salty state attorney general had been confident she could dispose of Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin in the big post-Asa generational fight for the governorship and thus titular leadership of the new far-right ruling Republicanism of Arkansas.

She thought Sarah Huckabee Sanders might not actually run. Covid was easing--for a time--and lucrative speaking fees were opening for a woman with a book describing her as Donald Trump's trusted intimate from North Korea to Buckingham Palace.

In this race to the far right, Griffin played a strong face card. He announced that he, as governor, would lead the way to phasing out the state income tax.

Then Sanders got in the race--Rutledge's theories and hopes notwithstanding. Griffin ran a poll that showed Sanders lapping the field no matter what he or she or Rutledge said or did.

Griffin decided to take his no-taxes brand over to the race for attorney general, an office having nothing to do with tax policy and indeed nothing to do with politics if done right.

For Rutledge, it has not been done right. It has been done for Trump and for her gubernatorial ambition, the latter surrendered to the former, only to be spurned.

Now Trump has endorsed Sanders and she has raised $9.1 million, two-thirds from out-of-state and mostly from the Trump network. Rutledge has raised a pittance.

Rutledge might try to make an issue of Sanders as a wholly owned subsidiary of out-of-state purchasers, but that would necessitate that she criticize Trump, and that would put her somewhere around zero in an Arkansas Republican primary.

So, while political observers were speculating on the timing and nature of Rutledge's pre-emptive concession to the Sanders coronation march, Rutledge came out last week with a new plan, a Hail Mary in the football parlance.

She announced that she, while a candidate for governor, would lead an initiated campaign to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the general election ballot in November 2022 to run the state income tax down to zero over eight years.

She'd put the state budget into a constitutional straitjacket. That was all.

The eight-year timetable happens to match the length of time Sanders would be governor if she stayed around for the second term instead of running off in 2025 to be President Trump's chief of staff.

Let me explain a couple of things about the income tax. Arkansas voters might be persuaded to consider one of these points. They will not hear of the other, though it's the truth.

Let's take first the one Arkansas voters don't want to hear. It's that the income tax is the fairest tax in the broad system of taxation.

You only pay it if you've made money, unlike, say, a sales tax, which you pay if you have to buy anything, or a gasoline tax, which you pay if you drive a jalopy that you need to get somewhere, such as a job.

And you pay a higher percentage of your income in taxes only if you are blessed by more income. Anybody complaining about bracket creep is telling you he's doing well.

You don't so much hear the reverse. You don't see a lot of people high-fiving because they just got laid off and will now pay lower income taxes.

It's better to have more at a higher percentage than none at zero percentage.

The problem with the income tax is that it requires paperwork and an annual day of reckoning. Thus it seems onerous to people, unlike a sales tax they pay casually and invisibly on retail purchases, and gasoline taxes, which get lost in the price per gallon.

But the point was that Arkansas voters refuse to believe that.

The other point, the one maybe more palatable for consideration by voters, is that Rutledge seems to be saying that, yeah, maybe she'll lose to Sanders, but Sarah will wish it had been the other way around by the time she finishes trying to patch together a functioning state government with an income tax that is steadily going away by constitutional edict.

In the most recent fiscal year, income taxes provided 50.4 percent of the state's general revenue budget, which pays for public schools, public colleges, health and human services, prisons and State Police protection.

Public schools and higher education take 70 percent. All the items I just mentioned take 95 percent.

If you're steadily drawing down to zero the income tax that provides more than half the general revenue budget, nearly all of which goes to the essentials detailed above, then you're spending all your time cutting schools, colleges, health programs, human services, incarcerations and police protection.

If Rutledge gets such a constitutional amendment passed, Governor Sanders will be wanting to go anywhere else by 2025, even to be Joe Biden's chief of staff.


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

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