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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The choices for Little Rock

by John Brummett | September 12, 2021 at 2:13 a.m.

The Little Rock sales-tax election Tuesday reprises the competing admirable essences of the big mayoral runoff of 2018.

We have Mayor Frank Scott's pulpit-styled expression of a big vision, of Little Rock aiming to be Nashville or Charlotte, not satisfied to be Jackson or Shreveport. Against that we have the business-principle practicality of Baker Kurrus, the lawyer, businessman and former state-appointed superintendent of the Little Rock schools.

We have Scott saying transformation awaits if we dare unify and reach for it. We have Kurrus releasing publicly a numbers analysis with the acknowledgement that he almost kept quiet because he didn't want to appear a sore loser. He says the data is fuzzy on whether elements of Scott's "Rebuild the Rock" package would realistically pursue the vision.

Having talked at length to both men last week, and having nodded as each spoke, I'll drill down to their competing truths.

Scott wants voters to approve a penny increase in the sales tax, which would be less in net effect when an existing three-eighth-cent capital improvement tax expires at the end of the year. He admits the sales tax is hardest on poor people and that a pandemic is hardly the ideal time to raise taxes. But he points out that the sales tax is the city's only revenue option and says the time will never be perfect.

He says we can pursue a transformed city by using tax proceeds in an unprecedented way for pre-kindergarten education, and, in addition to the usual outlays for streets and police, overhauling the city's numerous and poorly maintained parks, especially War Memorial and Hindman. And he sees a transformative effect in a modern interactive giraffe exhibit at the zoo, which, he says, must stay accredited and keep pace with zoos in Memphis and Tulsa.

Kurrus says the issue hinges on whether it's right to hit people with a regressive tax increase, meaning disproportionately burdensome on poor people, especially during a pandemic with city operating funds flowing at a surplus pace based in part on business and user taxes that are much higher than any other city in the state.

He says the new tax burden is especially questionable if used for a $40 million investment at the zoo absent any studies showing that such a project would sustain itself. He also questions whether the city should raise regressive taxes for the wholly untested purpose of augmenting the existing federal and state responsibilities for early childhood education.

Kurrus wonders whether, when the tax expires in 10 years, we might wind up with pretty much the same city we have now--not bad, just not transformed--but with the addition of a giraffe who'd still need to eat and day-care personnel who'd still want to be paid.

Scott says the early-childhood money will go to infrastructure to equip seats for additional personnel that would come from an expected increase in federal funding from the Biden administration.

I voted for Scott for the transformative change he represented. I don't regret it, even as he's royally messed up the police department, largely with an apparently bad chief selection but also in an understandable attempt to avoid racial unrest over a police shooting.

I like and applaud his leadership in other areas, especially during the pandemic. I believe it's important for Little Rock that he succeed.

But I regret the circumstance by which I didn't vote for the competent, galvanizing city-government leadership that Kurrus brought to the school district. I regret the circumstance by which I didn't vote for a man I knew to have waded into city budget books with greater energy and expertise than anybody (although Scott says that his friend Baker, who worked on his transition, seems to be reading budget books from former administrations.)

I understand Kurrus' point that, just as the doctors and scientists insist regarding the virus, decisions need to be data-driven. And I hear Scott telling me the zoo project and the early-childhood initiative are supported by studies.

How will I vote? It'll be a choice I'll regret either way, I'm sure.

And it'll be a choice without dire consequence, I am fairly certain.

By one outcome, we'll get Scott's possibly overcooked vision but only at the cost of thrilling kids with a better zoo and maybe saving a few younger ones with early childhood intervention.

By the other outcome, we can retreat to a surely popular leaner plan incorporating the expiring three-eighths of a cent and whatever surplus funds can be spared, and live for another bigger day.

Scott says that would merely attend to the basics and that War Memorial's remaking would have to be scrubbed. Some say basics are what you should always attend to first.

Scott says Oklahoma City seized its moment; that Nashville and Charlotte seized theirs, and that it's time for Little Rock to seize one.

If I appear to be undecided, it's because I have until Tuesday, as do the rest of the Little Rockians out there who haven't early-voted.


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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