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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: A long way from fairness

by John Brummett | October 3, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.

A poll will be out this morning showing considerable interest in Arkansas in bankrupting state government.

Let me qualify that: It might be that poll respondents would be willing to avoid bankruptcy, but only by more than doubling--to 14 percent, maybe--a regressive tax that already, at 6.5 percent, is one of the nation's highest state sales-tax levies.

Ditching the income tax--for which the poll finds warmth--and living with the vast revenue loss--for which the poll seems to find substantial blithe acceptance--ought to have the effect of bottoming-out the state's destructive plunge into unreasonable conservatism.

Then we might begin the long climb back to mathematics and other disciplines connected to sanity.

That's looking on the bright side for a state burdened with an extremist right-wing Legislature that seemed almost ready last week to secede for the right to spread a virus.

The survey is from Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College. It was to be unveiled this morning on the "Talk Business" news show on stations across the state.

With an allowance for weighting, it shows that 54 percent of 916 respondents reached by text Sept. 21-22 replied "support" when asked if they supported or opposed "the elimination of personal income taxes in Arkansas." Only 25.5 percent were opposed.

In a way, the support seems low. After all, the question was superficial and hypothetical about whether one would prefer to stop paying state income taxes.

But, in another way, the number alarms.

Half the respondents expressed at least a vague willingness to take nearly half the money out of the state's general operating budget--which goes to public schools, higher education, human services, health, prisons and the State Police, none easily defunded--and either eat the draconian consequence or make up the lost revenue with higher alternative taxes much harder on poor people than income taxes.

I say that because a follow-up question asked the favorable responders how they would answer if eliminating the income tax meant that other taxes had to be raised or state spending cut. The favorability dropped only five points, to 49 percent, and the opposition rose only five points, to 30.

The question matters because the current Republican gubernatorial candidates are talking about doing more than Asa Hutchinson's gradual drawdown of income tax rates tied to continuing-level budgets.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge supposedly intends to head a campaign for a constitutional amendment committing to a schedule to ditch the tax altogether by 2030. But that might be simply a desperation tactic.

She's trying to stay in the race against the juggernaut, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who also seems favorable to getting rid of the state income tax by an unspecified schedule, especially if she can figure a way to blame the tax on out-of-state radical leftists from whom she must protect us.

Ostensibly the point of getting rid of the state income tax--at least by prevailing conservative economic rhetoric--is that richer states like Texas and Florida don't have an income tax and presumably Arkansas would get rich like them if it didn't have one.

The theory holds that rich people will come to the state because of the absence of an income tax and use those savings to start businesses.

So, as the theory goes, we'd generate more economic activity to generate revenue to offset the eliminated income tax and we'd need less government money because there would be less need for public assistance.

Trickle-down hasn't ever worked out quite like that.

Florida and Texas have become economically vibrant for reasons transcending income taxes. And you can get very rich in Arkansas now, as has been famously demonstrated.

But it's the prevailing detesting of income taxes that fascinates.

Of all the generally applied taxes, those on income are the fairest. You only pay if you have income and you only pay more if you gain more income.

The sales tax will nab you on a pair of blue jeans no matter how much money you have. And everybody requires clothes.

But it presents itself in usually small increments as an add-on to a retail price.

The income tax presents itself every week, or every other week, as a line item on a paycheck or a direct-deposit record. It announces itself as a recurring subtraction from the money you'd have without it.

So, it irks people more.

The property tax in Arkansas is one of the lowest in the country. But it's a county tax, not a state tax, and its rate of increase is tightly limited by Amendment 59. We'd require a constitutional amendment for home-rule to shift state income taxes to county property taxes.

I'm reminded of that crusty old state senator who once mumbled, "Just raise the sales tax. The poor people are used to sufferin'."


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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