LITTLE ROCK — Four state lawmakers voted in this year’s legislative session for a bill to let Arkansas voters decide whether to raise the diesel-fuel tax by 5 cents per gallon, though they had pledged to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
Five voted for legislation to require out-of-state sellers that have affiliate agreements with Arkansas residents to collect the stateuse tax on online sales to Arkansans, though an anti-tax group warned that a vote for it could be viewed as a violation of the pledge they had signed.
Others who signed the no-tax-increase pledge opposed the legislation, or at least chose not to advance it, because of the pledges.
Just as some things depend on what the meaning of “is” is (a President Bill Clinton phrase that briefly became famous), differences of opinion arise over what it means to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes,” differences even between those who signed the pledge and those who wrote it.
The Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform, founded in 1985, opposes all tax increases, according to the group’s website, www.atr.org, and promotes the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, working to get candidates for office to sign it.
From the just-ended session, 16 state representatives in Arkansas and three state senators signed it as candidates in the last election, according to the site.
That’s up from five representatives and a senator in 2009. Eight years ago, only then-state Sen. Jim Holt, RSpringdale, and Rep. Russ Bennett, R-Lewisville, had signed.
The successful 2010 candidates who signed included Reps. John Burris, R-Harrison;Lane Jean, R-Magnolia; Garry Smith, D-Camden; and Reginald Murdoch, DMarianna.
According to the General Assembly website,the four nonetheless voted March 11 for House Bill 1902 by House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr., D-Arkansas City, to refer to voters the question of whether to raise the dieselfuel tax for highways.
Burris, leader of the House Republicans, said he signed the pledge “to show that I am serious about not raising taxes.”
He doesn’t consider his vote for a bill to allow voters to raise the diesel tax a violation of his pledge - “At this particular time, and especially the diesel tax, I didn’t view that at all as a violation of at least the guiding principles of why I signed [the pledge].”
In signing it, he “was saying, ‘I am going to oppose major tax increases,’” Burris said.
The diesel tax “is self-imposed largely by the truckers,” he said. “I think it is worth letting the people get to decide whether they want it. It is not a violation of the reason I signed the pledge.”
Burris said he has not received any phone calls about whether he violated the pledge.
“I don’t think [constituents] view it as any tax increase, because it’s not. It’s giving them the right to vote,” he said.
Smith said he didn’t consider his vote a violation of his pledge. He saw it as supporting “a better small government” and letting “the small guy have just as much vote as I do.”
The diesel tax increase is projected to raise about$1.1 billion over 10 years, if approved.
“I talked to [Moore] early on, and I said, ‘I can’t vote for any new taxes. I just can’t do it,’” Smith said. “[Moore] said, ‘Well, would you help me get it to the ballot for the people to vote on?’ I said, ‘I would do that. That’s fair.’”
Two years ago, Smith voted for a tobacco-tax increase to fund 23 health-related programs, including the creation of a trauma-care system, despite signing the Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge to oppose all efforts to increase taxes.
After he did so, he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February 2009 that he had “been wrestling with this bear” for weeks and noted that his nephew had been critically injured in an accident several years earlier.
“I believe this is the right thing to do for Arkansas and the health benefits that we’ll receive,” Smith said then. He said that during his campaign he swore he would not vote for “any new taxes,” and he didn’t believe his vote violated that pledge.
“I think I did what is right for our people, and, if I didn’t, then I’ll bear the consequences,” he said.
Last year, he was unopposed for re-election.
Murdoch said he didn’t recall signing the pledge and didn’t know he was listed as a signer on Americans for Tax Reform’s website.
“I haven’t seen anything with my signature on it,” he said.
If he signed it, it might have been when he went through “an enormous amount of information,” Murdoch said. He said he considers each proposed tax cut or increase on a case-by-case basis.
At the request of the Democrat-Gazette, Will Upton, state affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform, provided a copy of what he called “Rep. Murdoch’s signed pledge,” dated March 22, 2010.
The newspaper e-mailed a copy to Murdoch, who replied, “I do affirm my signature on the document.”
He said that “upon reflection prior to the session beginning in January, I stated I would consider all bills based upon their individual merits. As an incoming freshman, I quickly learned to READ everything carefully prior to signing ... I feel the best way to handle situations such as this is to be honest and forthright.”
Jean could not be reached at his home last week. Several telephone messages were left at his home. Several were left at his business. And several messages were sent to his email address.
In addition to Burris, Jean, Murdoch and Smith, seven other representatives who signed the pledge voted for a Senate-approved amendment to the bill. Those votes had the effect of excluding fuel “not intended for highway use, as defined by federal regulations on Jan. 1, 2011, and for agricultural purposes” from the tax increase (if it’s approved) and sending the taxincrease-election measure on to the governor, who signed it into law.
The seven are Lori Benedict, R-Salem; Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville; Ed Garner, RMaumelle; Josh Johnston, R-Rose Bud; David Meeks, R-Conway; Loy Mauch, RBismarck; and Jon Woods, R-Springdale.
Five other representatives who signed the pledge didn’t vote on the amendment or voted “present.” They are Jane English, R-North Little Rock; Justin Harris, R-West Fork; Jon Hubbard, R-Jonesboro; Allen Kerr, R-Little Rock; and David Sanders, RLittle Rock.
Benedict said she didn’t see any reason to vote against the amendments (another amendment put a one-election limit on the issue) because she didn’t like the bill and they improved it.
Meeks said that “in my mind, it was not a vote for a tax. It made it a better bill, if you could make it a better bill.”
Woods said “I take the tax pledge very seriously, and I don’t remember [the bill]coming back from the Senate to the House floor to be voted on. It was not my intention to show any support at all for that piece of legislation.”
English said she considered a vote for the amendments to be “a vote for the tax.”
State Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, who had signed the pledge, voted to advance the bill out of the Senate Transportation Committee, then voted against it in the Senate.
Holland said he didn’t consider advancing the bill a violation of his pledge.
“I thought it was better amended than it was unamended,” he said. “I felt it would have been withdrawn from committee unamended if it hadn’t had the amendments put on it and voted out that way.”
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain Home, voted against advancing the bill. She said she couldn’t vote to advance it and keep the pledge.
But, she said, her vote against advancing the bill had more to do with her concern about putting an “undue burden on people” driving diesel trucks and diesel rigs, with little benefit to her district.
She said she and another senator asked Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax group, whether a vote for a bill to refer a tax increase to voters would be considered “a tax increase,” and officials of the group said it would.
In the end, she said, “I signed the pledge, and I want to be true to it, and I listened to my constituents who were not for [the tax].”
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, is the other senator who signed the pledge.
ANOTHER TAX REFERRAL
Smith and Murdoch also were the only two representatives who signed the pledge who voted March 24 for House Joint Resolution 1001 by Rep. Jonathan Barnett, RSiloam Springs, to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment to create a 10-year 0.5 percentage-point increase in the state sales tax for building additional fourlane roads across the state.
Mauch was a co-sponsor of the proposal, but later had his name removed from it and voted against it. Mauch said he did so because he didn’t want to violate the pledge.
Benedict, Jean and Hubbard co-sponsored the proposal, too. Benedict and Hubbard ended up voting against the proposal. Jean didn’t vote on it.
“I guess when I co-sponsored it, it wasn’t made clear to me what the bill did,” Benedict said. “I knew it was going to be referred to voters, and I didn’t view that as voting for a tax issue. I viewed that as letting the voters decide.”
But Benedict said her constituents didn’t want her to vote to refer either the dieseltax increase or the sales-tax increase to voters “to save them from voting on the issue.”
Hubbard could not be reached for comment at hishome last week.
Norquist, in a letter dated Feb. 21 to Arkansas lawmakers, said he considered a vote for HJR1001 to be a violation of the pledge.
On March 9, Norquist told state senators in a letter that it would violate the pledge to vote for a bill to require outof-state sellers that have affiliate agreements with Arkansas residents to collect the state use tax on online sales to Arkansans if it’s “scored assuming no online retailer severs their in-state ties.”
Under current law, Arkansans who buy online products are supposed to pay the tax themselves but often don’t.
Under the measure, Senate Bill 738, now Act 1001, the seller won’t be required to collect the tax if its annual sales to Arkansans don’t exceed $10,000 a year.
Five representatives who signed the pledge voted for the bill - Burris, Jean, Kerr, Murdoch and Smith.
Burris said he did so because he didn’t view it as “a new tax. We merely changed who is responsible to collect the tax.”
Kerr said the bill “did not raise taxes. We simply redefined a tax that was already there.”
The measure is expected to create “minimal additional revenue” for the state, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration, and the amount would depend on how online retailers respond to it. There may be no gain at all, the department said.
Some small-business owners and a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said the measure would “level the playing field” for Arkansas businesses competing with out-of-state enterprises that sell online.
Online retailer Overstock.com Inc. said last month that it canceled advertising contracts in Arkansas as a result of the new online sales-tax law, which the company called unconstitutional.
A group called the Arkansas Alliance for Main Street Fairness supported the bill and has run newspaper ads thanking lawmakers, such as Kerr, “For standing with Main Street Arkansas and protecting Arkansas Jobs!” A radio ad in the same vein has aired in the Little Rock area. Another newspaper ad thanks Gov. Mike Beebe and the Legislature.
Polly Martin, president of the Arkansas Grocers & Retail Merchants Association, is a member of the alliance. She said the Legislature’s enactment of SB738 triggered the ads.
The Arkansas unit is part of the national Alliance for Main Street Fairness, she said, and Arkansas alliance members include the grocers and merchants group, chambers of commerce, the Arkansas Homefurnishings Association, and Wal-Mart.
The national alliance says it represents brick-and-mortar retailers that collect sales taxes and are committed to a fair and equitable sales-tax system that eliminates the competitive tax advantage granted to certain online-only retailers.