Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

EDITORIAL >>One tax idea that’s helpful

Governor Beebe and the incoming leaders of the General Assembly said yesterday that they would work for a sizable tax increase in the legislative session that begins Monday. That is music to no one’s ears, but it is an instance when the dreaded phrase “higher taxes” should raise hopes, not fears.

Arkansas is one of only three states without a statewide trauma network and the only one without a single hospital that can deliver what is called Level I care — an emergency room with a full range of specialists and equipment available around the clock for critically injured people. Despite efforts by former Rep. Sandra Prater of Jacksonville to establish trauma networks, in much of the state there is no trauma facility close enough to do the lifesaving work that exists in most of the United States. The Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center at Memphis, a hospital in Shreveport, La., and two hospitals in Springfield, Mo., provide some treatment to people in the outer regions of Arkansas, but getting people there in a timely way is a problem. The hour after a severe injury usually is the difference between life and death or permanent impairment.

As a result, Arkansas ranks near the top in deaths from trauma. In 2005, 2,119 people died from injuries of one sort or another. Another 23,200 were hospitalized from injuries.

So, much of the proceeds from the cigarette tax, $30 million to $35 million a year, would develop and operate a statewide trauma system: as many as three highly specialized centers in central Arkansas, including the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and a network of Level II and Level III centers around the state.

The state recognized that need long ago. Back in Governor Jim Guy Tucker’s brief tenure, in 1993, the legislature authorized the state Health Department to develop a trauma network. But that took money and nothing much was ever done about it. The state had more pressing needs, like education and prisons.

A deep recession may not be the time to do it either, but when will there ever be a right time? Each of us may one day encounter the need for lifesaving attention.

The new speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Robbie Wills of Conway, suggested an excise tax of at least 50 cents a package. Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow, the incoming president pro tempore of the Senate, was noncommittal on the size of the tax but indicated that he could support something. Governor Beebe said 50 cents was too low.

We think so, too. Adding a dollar to the current tax of 59 cents a pack would produce enough money for a trauma-care network and meet other critical health-care needs, like expanding the area health-education centers and community mental health centers.

Why burden cigarette smokers and not the rest of the public? Yes, the cigarette tax is regressive because poor people are more likely than others to smoke. But smoking is a major contributor to public-health problems. One study concluded that it would take a tax of $7 a package to pay for the tobacco-related public health costs in Arkansas. A stiff tax also will drive more people, particularly youngsters, to give up smoking or not to take it up. The tax can never be too successful in that way.

The tobacco industry is gearing up to stop the tax, which will require an extraordinary three-fourths of both houses to pass whether it is a penny or a dollar a pack. A Washington group calling itself FreedomWorks headed by Dick Armey, the former Republican leader of the U. S. House of Representatives, has issued a call to arms to stop the Arkansas tax. Tobacco has proved to be a powerful lobby in Arkansas — it could always bring Governor Mike Huckabee to heel — and three-fourths is a nearly impossible threshold.

The governor and legislative leaders ought to think about replacing cigarette excise taxes with a stiff sales tax on tobacco. It would require a simple majority and insure that Arkansans get the medical-care system they deserve.