Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

TOP STORY>>Legislators see a close tax vote

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Despite an appearance at the state Capitol on Tuesday by anti-tax crusader Dick Armey, the former U.S. House Majority Leader, Democrats in the Arkansas House of Representatives predict they will have the votes they need to fund a trauma center and other health program with a new 56-cent-a-pack cigarette tax increase.

Rep. Greg Reep, D-Warren, House sponsor, says he aims to present his bill today in the House Rules Committee, and with a favorable vote, it could go to the full House on Thursday.

On a strictly partisan count, Democrats would fall three votes shy of the 75 votes they need to pass the bill.

The tax will generate an estimated $88 million a year and an equal amount in federal matching funds.

It would update emergency rooms across Arkansas, help fund 59 community health centers, insure more children and open a satellite campus of UAMS in northwest Arkansas.

Gov. Mike Beebe and Speaker Robbie Wills have been working hard to round up the votes they need, says state Rep. Jane English, R-North Pulaski County, who op-poses the tax.

“But there is a strong bunch of people who have said no from the start,” English said.
She said Armey asked, “Is this good public policy?”

She disputed the characterization of Armey as a cigarette industry lobbyist, saying he came as an opponent of raising taxes and growing government.

Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, also spoke at the morning rally.

“I think it’s going to be a very close vote,” Carter said.

“I hope our message convinces those on the fence. I suspect (it will pass or fail) by two or three votes,” Carter said. “The Speaker says he’s got 70 yeses.”

He said Armey was “an impressive guy. He’s been around for a long time.”

Carter is sponsoring a bill that would require random testing of those receiving benefits from the state Department of Human Services. Lonoke County has had problems with meth labs for many years.

Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jackson-ville, says the governor’s cigarette tax proposal seems to be gaining momentum.

He says the governor has proposed an impressive health initiative that includes not only the trauma center, but rural health care centers and help for rural fire departments.

Perry said he will vote for the cigarette and tobacco tax if that’s the only way to fund the governor’s proposal.

“I got my $575 million highway bill today,” said Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle. He and co-sponsor Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, successfully guided the governor’s bill to unanimous approval in the Senate.

The bill allows the governor to ask voters in 2011, 2013 or 2015 to approve the sale of a bond issue, the proceeds of which would be dedicated to repair and maintain the state highway system.

If the bond issue passes, then “we will not have to draw funds from the secondary road highway fund to be used on the interstate highway system,” according to Glover’s talking points.

No new taxes are required. The bonds would be retired by proceeds from a four-cent-a-gallon diesel tax. The authority to put the bond issues before voters expires in 2015.