Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

WED 4-19-6 EDITORIAL >> Beebe fights tax charge

One thing that is as predictable as the solar orbits is that whenever a Democratic officeholder runs for higher office, the Republican Party will put out a report exaggerating the man’s record on taxes.

You will remember that when Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 the Republicans published an encyclopedic list numbering in the hundreds of tax increases that Clinton had signed in 12 years as governor.

He was the biggest taxer in history. Anyone who looked up the act numbers would find scores of shocking levies like a $5 annual license fee for water-well drillers or podiatrists. Quite a few actually were new deductions or exemptions that lowered, not raised taxes. But what voter has time to research the details?

Monday, much earlier in the election than anyone would have guessed, the Arkansas Republican Party released a lengthy report of Attorney General Mike Beebe’s votes on taxes as a state senator. Beebe is the Democratic candidate for governor, and the executive director of the Republican Party said the report highlighted “a pattern of fiscal irresponsibility” in Beebe’s 20 years of lawmaking that made him unfit to be governor.

A possible explanation of the timing was that an independent poll had just come out showing Beebe with an 11-point lead over the Republican, Asa Hutchinson.

The report on Beebe’s tax votes was even more disingenuous than the one on Clinton.

Down in the list of tax votes were taxes on bingo operations, a $3-a-year tax on corporations to pay for a signature-imaging system in the state corporation registration office, a tax on the rental of townhouses and condominiums and a 2-pennies-a-bushel tax on raw rice to pay for scientific research on rice. The GOP statement did not mention that a number of Beebe’s votes were for taxes pushed by Gov. Mike Huckabee — a Republican, if anyone needs reminding.

In fact, it subtly credits — or blames — Beebe for Huckabee’s last big sales tax increase, at a special session in 2004, although Beebe was no longer in the Senate.

It said that since Beebe went to the Senate in 1983, the sales tax had swollen from 3 to more than 6 percent, neglecting to point out that Beebe had no role whatever in the last leg of that rise or that much of that increase came on the watch of Gov. Huckabee and with his blessing.

The report also did not give Beebe credit for having helped craft the individual income tax reductions of 1997, which Gov. Huckabee touts far and wide as evidence that he is a conservative tax cutter.

But that is not the really dishonest part of the attack. “Mike Beebe is the $10 Billion Man,” said Clint Reed, the GOP executive director. He said the tax increases supported by Beebe totaled $10 billion. Statehouse reporters ordinarily do not ask many questions, but it was hard to pass on that. If the total state budget now stands at less than $5 billion, how could Beebe have raised it by $10 billion?

Well, Reed explained, they simply added the revenue every year from, for example, the 1983 sales tax increase for education and made the same cumulative computation for every tax. No one has ever calculated taxes that way before nor will the Republicans like them to be figured that way for Huckabee or for Hutchinson. Hutchinson, you see, could be said to have cut taxes for American billionaires as a congressman in 2001 and 2002 by trillions of dollars.

That exaggerates his generosity to the Gateses, Waltons and Tysons, some. Beebe had another response, a good one. Which services funded by those taxes and endorsed by the Republican governor would the Republicans eliminate if Hutchinson is elected?

Here is the fatal weakness in the Republican election strategy nowadays. The party assumes that voters have only one concern about their government, which is how much it collects in taxes.

Greed does not motivate most people. They like low taxes and fair taxes even more (the party will not be enlisting in that fight), but that is not the sum or even the summit of their civic interests. Republicans make a mistake when they assume it to be so. What voters will insist upon, even when the legitimate subject is taxes, is that either party and any candidate be honest and straightforward and not take them all for saps.