Highway tax foes from the left and right
There’s a saying that “Politics makes strange bedfellows,” and it definitely creates interesting ones. Such is the case with the organized opposition to Issue 1.
Issue 1 is the ballot proposal led by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to make permanent a half-cent sales tax for highways via a constitutional amendment. Voters approved the 10-year tax in 2012.
Leading the opposition is the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, (AFP), which advocates for less taxes and smaller government. The national organization was founded by billionaire brothers Charles and the late David Koch. Among their companies is Georgia-Pacific, which has a significant Arkansas presence.
Some – particularly in the environmental movement – don’t like the Kochs and say they have fought action against climate change. They consider AFP too right wing. On the other hand, AFP doesn’t always take a traditional conservative stance: It’s big on reducing prison populations, for example.
But again, politics makes strange bedfellows, or at least interesting ones. On Friday, Ryan Norris, AFP’s state director, led an online press conference with members of the diverse left-right coalition, “No Permanent Tax. No on Issue 1.”
Norris, the coalition’s chair, said the half-cent sales tax is a regressive tax (meaning it hits poorer Arkansans harder), that it will be borne by consumers, and that the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) has other options. He said enshrining it in the Constitution would make it permanent. The coalition’s vice chair, law professor Josh Silverstein, later said the Constitution should be about rights and the basic structure of government, not tax policy.
Norris called on the other members of his coalition to speak. Those on the “right” were AFP and a couple of tea party groups. Those on the “left” included Arkansas Community Organizations and Arkansas Public Policy Panel, which advocate for lower-income Arkansans. George Wise of the environmentalist Central Arkansas Sierra Club said the tax only funds highways while ignoring other forms of more environmentally friendly transportation. Dan Schneiman of Audubon Arkansas, the bird advocates, said the state should invest in greener alternatives. He said climate change caused partly by cars harms birds and humans.
How did an Arkansas group founded nationally by the not-so-worried-about-climate-change Koch brothers team up with environmentalists and bird activists? Norris told me AFP has natural alliances with tea party groups but had worked with some of the others on specific issues. For example, it had allied with Arkansas Community Organizations on issues related to tenants’ rights. As word spread that AFP was opposed, the environmental groups made contact.
AFP had the financial resources to form a legislative question committee, which groups must do in Arkansas for disclosure reasons if they receive contributions to take a stance on a ballot measure. The coalition members will activate their own grassroots networks while coordinating their message. AFP’s resources will allow the committee to mount a campaign.
Supporting Issue 1 are many of the state’s leading business groups who have raised more than $2 million for their effort, “Vote for Roads. Vote for Issue 1.”
They say Arkansas must invest in its underfunded highways, so they are asking voters to continue a tax they’ve been paying since 2013. Highways traditionally have been funded mainly by state and national fuel taxes – a declining revenue source as vehicles get better mileage and as the nation moves away from fossil fuels. If it passes, ARDOT will have a stable revenue source and $205 million more annually to invest in safer, better-maintained highways, to reduce congestion, and to expand its road network. That network has kept stores supplied during the coronavirus pandemic. Cities and counties would split $87 million for roads, streets and bridges.
Last Wednesday, Hutchinson released a poll showing 69% support for the tax. The campaign manager read me the question pollsters asked, and it sounded legit. Norris said Arkansans his group communicates with are breaking the other way.
We’ll know the results on Election Night or at least early the next morning.
A couple of months later, Arkansas legislators will meet for their regular session. If Hutchinson proposes a pro-business tax cut or regulation change, AFP likely will support it while some of its current Issue 1 allies might oppose it.
But that’s politics. It makes for interesting bedfellows, and often changing ones.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.