Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

EDITORIAL >> What would Reagan do?

The cigarette-tax bill wending its way through the legislature is already providing a considerable stimulus to the moribund Arkansas economy. Witness the full-page advertisements in the big newspapers by Phillip Morrisí parent and the tobacco-front group directed by former U. S. House majority leader Dick Armey and the contract lobbyists who are paid to bend the ears of the handful of state senators who are undecided on the tax.

But some of the influence peddling is not bringing any cash to the state. Grover Norquist, the professional right winger who runs the potent Washington lobbying outfit called Americans for Tax Reform, stayed in his office yesterday to make a pitch with the Arkansas media against the tax. Norquist was often accorded the title of the most influential man in Washington during the George W. Bush years. His influence has seriously ebbed when he is trying to stop a tobacco tax in Arkansas.

Norquist prefaced his tobacco defense the other day with an attack on Governor Beebe for refusing to designate a Ronald Reagan Day in Arkansas to memorialize the achievements of the 40th president. His group has tried to get all the states to establish a Reagan day. Beebe says he will only recognize the presidential days established by federal law. If a Reagan day, how could you say no to a Clinton Day, a Jefferson Day, a Madison Day, or even a Franklin Pierce Day?

The juxtaposition of honoring Ronald Reagan for his low-taxes mantra and opposing higher cigarette taxes because the country is in a recession is particularly ironic. In the depth of the deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression, President Reagan doubled the federal excise tax on cigarettes from 8 to 16 cents. Not only that, he raised the gasoline tax a nickel a gallon, raised income taxes and signed a big increase in Social Security payroll taxes. In one year while the nation was recovering from an economic slide that took unemployment to double digits, Reagan raised more taxes on more people than any peacetime president. He had cut taxes sharply before that, of course, but hagiographers of the nationís most pleasant president ignore the second act.

Oh, and when Reagan became governor of California in 1967, he immediately raised taxes by a billion dollars, a whopping sum back then. Mike Huckabee pointed that out last year when Norquist was attacking the former Arkansas governor as one of the biggest taxers and spenders in the country. Governor Huckabee, incidentally, raised tobacco taxes in 1997 and again in 2003.

The hypocrisy of it aside, what Ronald Reagan and Mike Huckabee might have done about tobacco or any other taxable commodity is beside the point. The need for the medical services that the cigarette tax would support isnít. Where Mr. Armey and Mr. Norquist live, cigarettes are already taxed locally at a dollar a pack, and if tragedy befalls them or their families, a world-class trauma system, medical network and comprehensive insurance are at their disposal. Who are they to reproach Arkansas for wanting the same?