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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Surplus cynicism

by John Brummett | June 8, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

When a news release appeared last week from the governor's office reporting a record $980 million surplus, my knee jerked and I challenged the news.

Didn't Mike Huckabee leave Mike Beebe a billion-dollar surplus enabling Beebe to attend without complication to court-ordered school facility improvements?

I distinctly remembered irking Beebe by writing that anybody could be a good governor with an extra billion dollars.

Quick research revealed that surplus to have been $850 million. I'd been rounding up for effect for years, I guess. So had Huckabee on the presidential campaign trail, boasting with typical hyperbole of his Arkansas prowess. But that wasn't the point.

As Gov. Asa Hutchinson himself was happy to explain, the point was that $850 million was the amount of collections exceeding budgets for a biennium, two fiscal years, thus available for the next legislative session.

This $980 million is for one year, and 11 months of one at that.

This current surplus is Secretariat at the Belmont.

June is almost certain to provide more unobligated manna, leaving state government at the end of the fiscal year on the 30th with a literal cool billion and change just sitting around.

Naturally, Hutchinson, because he's a Republican, intends to call the Legislature into special session this fall to display this pile of an extra billion as evidence that we can cut income taxes on the highest incomes--from 5.9 percent to 5.5 percent over two years, with a 5.7 transitional increment the first year.

Naturally, because they're Trumpian extremists, some legislators will resist. I don't mean the tax cut. I mean the tax.

They'll want to take the income-tax rate to zero, which is what Sarah Sanders and Leslie Rutledge have been talking about on what passes for debate on the 2022 gubernatorial campaign trail.

Asa can probably hold them off. He's a lame duck considered a Republican in name only by the madness caucus, but the madness caucus can take heart that he'll be gone soon and Sarah can join them in really messing up this state.

Indications are that, in a short time, we'll be doing away with income taxes, jailing American history teachers who mention slavery, allowing voting at only one polling place deep in the deer woods and training the National Guard for the next invasion of the U.S. Capitol--to invade, I mean, not resist the criminal marauders.

To be clear, Hutchinson has been talking about cutting income taxes, and doing so in steady and not irresponsible increments, throughout his governorship. And state government has continued to provide services, buoyed by low unemployment and a growth economy primarily in northwest Arkansas, Jonesboro and spottily in central Arkansas.

The rest of the state is withering, but the success elsewhere permits policymakers to think less about that.

So, the occasion necessitates that someone make two points, and I guess I'll do it:

One is that Republicans were going to cut the state income tax regardless of whether the revenue flow justified it.

The second is that Hutchinson is being disingenuous by saying that this massive overage shows that we can easily cut taxes because we tightened our belts.

The only thing that this $980 billion-and-counting surplus proves is the following: If we go into a pandemic and widespread quarantine, and if we draw a tight budget out of worry for that, and if the federal government then prints trillions to send to all states including ours, including to state government directly and to businesses and to every taxpayer, and if we draw down our economy less severely than most other states at some risk to public health, and if the scientists will come up with a virus vaccine toward the end of that year, and if we'll all start to pour out of our homes and return to business as usual even as a second round of federal largesse is still arriving, then we'll have 980 million extra dollars, more than a fourth of it compiling in newly liberated May alone.

The only way this billion-dollar overage justifies a state income- tax cut is if we have a global pandemic every year and the federal government puts large wads of newly printed cash under us to prop us up artificially while we decline to take the health crisis as seriously as states where people live closer together take it.

But none of that matters. Those points are moot. The only meaningful debate is going to be about Asa's timidity in cutting the income tax only a little. And responsible governing's only hope is that he can hold off the madness caucus for a few months.

Our only hope after that is that all these people are right when they say Sarah Sanders is reasonable and is only saying what the polls say she needs to say to get elected, and will govern not a lot differently from her dad, even from Asa.

Let's cross our fingers, then, for political cynicism.


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.

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