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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Just there for the show

by John Brummett | August 9, 2022 at 4:26 a.m.

Sen. Alan Clark, of all people, got it right last week in a presentation to the Garland County Tea Party, of all groups.

He said the special legislative session beginning today is unnecessary and mostly for political show--Gov. Asa Hutchinson's on one stage and, on an entirely separate stage, the Republican Legislature.

Inflation relief was the supposed point, but most of the excuse for relief this week will be incremental or deferred.

It's as if you call 911 from the gas pump or supermarket checkout line and the dispatcher says we'll have someone over next spring.

As for Clark, the reference to his being right is not, of course, about trying to collect expenses for a legislative meeting he didn't attend, or whining when caught, or being resentful and mounting a counter-attack of innuendo against colleagues when sanctioned.

But it is simply true, as he told the home-district right-wingers, that this special session needn't occur.

He meant from the get-go. I agree only to the extent that the perfectly fine beginning concept--inflation relief, then teacher raises--went sour fast.

The original point by Hutchinson, obscured now by elaborate detours, was to tap a little of the $1.6 billion surplus to send emergency financial relief directly to Arkansas citizens for the pain of gasoline and grocery prices. Several states had sent residents one-time cash or, less effectively, suspended state taxes on gasoline.

But legislators contended that state government didn't know how to find everybody to send checks and that dead people would probably get some of the money.

Instead, they said, the state simply should use the one-time surplus to justify putting into immediate rather than phased-in effect the already-passed top income-tax rate reduction from 5.5 percent to 4.9 percent.

Working folks with part of their wages in that category would get reduced payroll withholding while larger percentages of tax savings would go to people with a bunch of their money in that bracket.

Hutchinson has no influence over the Legislature, on account of his being a lame duck and his own party's legislators being sick of him. They think, not unjustifiably, that everything he is doing now is in the interest of his curious presidential aspiration.

All the other income-tax cuts over the last nearly eight years have been phased in to be prudent. But now legislators warn from one side of their mouths of Joe Biden's recession but say from the other side that there's no problem with taking hundreds of millions in income taxes out of future state budgets.

And that's with the possibility that the federal government will demand untold sums of our covid-relief money back for using it, against the rules, for income-tax cuts.

There will be separate one-time middle-income tax credits of a puny $150--$300 for married couples--approved this week. But that's not real-time relief. It's a little tax-return lagniappe giving you a reason to smile narrowly with a tad less withholding. It will reduce $150 of your amount of tax owed, if you owe any. But it's not refundable.

Take that last paragraph to the supermarket and gasoline station and see if they'll redeem it for your gasoline purchases a month ago.

The other supposed emergency action this week will be to set aside $50 million to make grants to school districts for safety improvements. The issue was all the rage for several days after the Uvalde shooting.

But there's no real reason to carve out that $50 million in August when none of it can be awarded to school districts until a process is followed to establish regulations for grants, after which school districts could begin seeking funds.

The state could wait until the regular session in January and make a supplemental appropriation for this same purpose, perhaps with groundwork done for setting up the grant program more quickly.

Meantime, a version of a real problem if not an emergency looms or already exists in Arkansas' regionally below-par teacher salaries and the burnout of teachers from hardship duty in the pandemic.

Hundreds rallied in the hot sun Sunday afternoon at the state Capitol for teacher raises from the surplus during this session.

State Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis, a departing Democrat, attended and told me the heck of it is that money is plentiful and the politics right, and that teacher raises could be afforded if the controlling Republicans wanted to do it.

But they have a process, you see. It's called an adequacy study. They'll know more after that's completed, you see, at which point teachers will be rewarded.

But there is nothing about a routine biennial adequacy study of public schools' financial needs that prevents legislators from deciding in the August heat of 2022 to act on their own initiative to value teaching and public education.

They won't and they apparently don't.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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