Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

EDITORIAL>> More serious than bingo

Arkansas faces a single constitutional problem worthy of the votersí ministrations, if you can believe the legislature. It is the prospect that Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley will raid a parish hall and arrest a priest and his parishioners for practicing bingo or engaging in a raffle.

A joint legislative committee wrestled with a raft of constitutional resolutions for 90 days, but the lawmakers could agree on only one to refer to voters in 2006. It would allow nonprofit organizations to have bingo and raffles provided that the money will not be used to compensate anyone affiliated with the organizations.

Bingo and raffles run afoul of the Constitutionís general prohibition of gambling. Many churches have been operating them anyway for years, but fears of arrests have lately shut a couple of the games down.

The legislature came to their rescue and so next year, no doubt, will voters. But bingo anxiety does not rank among the top 100 issues that engage our crazyquilt Constitution. Arkansas has real crises that constitutional reforms might help us solve. Every legislator was well aware of them, the Supreme Court having so often and recently reminded them. One is the virtual destruction of the ad-valorem tax system and local school support by a patchwork of amendments the past quarter-century.

House Speaker Bill Stovall, Rep. Jodie Mahony and Sen. Shane Broadway proposed three amendments to correct abuses of the property tax, any of which might improve the fairness and stability of real and personal property taxes, which are a mainstay of our unconstitutional public school system.

We particularly liked Mahonyís amendment to retroactively collect taxes on the current value of timber and agricultural land held for speculative purposes. The brouhaha over Deltic Timber Corp.ís effort to build a luxury subdivision on the slopes above Lake Maumelle, the central Arkansas water supply, should have made everyone keenly aware of the problem. Deltic and other developers have been paying a few bits an acre in taxes on land they sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre.

Other states have corrected such practices. When land is sold for development, the land is assessed at the current value and taxes are collected backward for three to seven years on the land. Mahony proposed to tax the high-value real estate back three years at the market value.

Voters, we believe, would approve the amendment. Texas, California, Oregon and Utah have adopted more far-reaching provisions to correct similar abuses.

It would mean a significant amount of new revenue for schools, cities and counties but more than that, it would introduce a measure of fairness to a tax system that unjustly burdens homeowners.

But the legislature has recessed, not to consider any more of the peopleís business before its formal adjournment, unless, as Speaker Stovall said, the joint committee can get together and agree on something more than the sanctity of bingo.

Exhausted by the trivia of its labors, the lawmakers seem in no mood to think about anything so serious.