I absolutely cringe whenever the Arkansas Legislature goes in session because it generally means some laws are going to be passed that annoy me.
One of the most aggravating pieces of legislation to be discussed this time around is, yes, a new tax. It seems the state needs $88 million a year to improve health care in Arkansas ($27 million would fund a statewide trauma system, while the rest will be spent on God knows what). How does the state plan to raise that money? A bill has been introduced in the legislature that, if passed, will put a 56-cent tax on cigarettes.
Of course, it's popular to kick smokers around, but anyone who knows what's going on in this state ought to object to this thing for at least a couple of reasons.
For one thing, Arkansas is the home of the budget surplus. This session has about $250 million in surplus money to play with -- money that was collected but never allocated to anything. In the 2007 session, the legislature had close to $1 billion in surplus money to blow on various bits of nonsense.
I should point out that the legislature, historically, has met every two years. My fellow Arkansans, however, must be masochists as they voted in November to approve yearly legislative sessions. That's something we'll regret.
But, I digress. Here's my question -- if Arkansas is running budget surpluses that are in the 100s of millions of dollars, why on earth does the state need to collect a new tax? Why not use some of that surplus to cover a trauma center and pay for other programs that will keep us all healthy?
Yeah, I know -- smokers deserved to get taxed because of the health problems they inflict on themselves and blah, blah, blah. Here's the problem, however. If a government that's running sizable surpluses decides there's nothing wrong with raising taxes during a crippling recession for the sheer hell of it, the chances are good they'll crank up those taxes on something you do care about eventually.
Frankly, I get irritated when the state decides to raise taxes on just about anything. They're already taking too much of my money and ought to be talking about tax cuts rather than new taxes. I know a tax cut is out of the question because the government's not exactly known for giving something back after they take it, so I'll settle for the next best thing -- no new taxes on anything.
Then, there's that lottery to consider. Last year, my fellow Arkansans threw logic to the wind and voted for a statewide lottery to fund scholarships. Unless Arkansas is somehow vastly different from the rest of the nation, then the money that is being used for scholarships now will allocated to the general budget and replaced with lottery revenue (in some parts of the world, that's known as a shell game).
Last year, the state set aside $43.7 million for scholarships, so it's safe to assume that $43.7 million will be pulled out of education and shoved in the general budget after the lottery gets rolling in 2010. In other words, a state which routinely runs large budget surpluses has found a way to get its hands on another $43.7 million. Again, we've got plenty of money pouring into the state treasury and simply ought not allow those rascals to pass yet another "just for the hell of it" tax.
Want to build a trauma system? Looks like you've got $43.7 million dollars that will soon be freed up to spend on such things. Need to maintain that trauma system? Again, let's take a look at that $43.7 million. No one seems to give much thought about reallocating money that will certainly be free in a couple of years. The folks in Little Rock seem content to find some way to spend that for various things while hitting the public up for tax revenue. Who gives a damn about fairness, efficiency, responsibility or any of that other junk?
Perhaps the thing that irritates me the most about this new tax is that the bill in support of it was filed just a couple of days after a 3.85 percent pay raise the legislature voted for itself, constitutional officers and judges was passed and signed into law. We've heard a lot of talk about "tough times" and "recessions" coming out of Little Rock since the legislature went into session last week.
Apparently, sacrifices are necessary during these tough times unless you happen to be an elected official. Our politically savvy governor, Mike Beebe, wisely declined his raise. I doubt if anyone else who benefits from that law will exercise such restraint.