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Like Mike

In the 1990’s, Michael Jordan was a hero of the NBA and a pop culture icon. A recurring theme in Gatorade ads at the time featured people singing about how they wanted to “be like Mike.”

It seems the ad could be recycled by the campaign for Mike Ross for governor. His recurring theme is that he wants to be like Mike, but not the NBA star. He wants to be like Gov. Mike Beebe.

It is easy to understand why Ross wants his campaign to be about running for Beebe’s third term. During the first tidal wave election in 2010 that swept many Republicans to office, Beebe somehow remained an anomaly, winning all 75 counties. Much to some Republicans’ chagrin, Beebe remains popular with an approval rating over 60 percent.

That is why Ross hopes to cling tightly to Beebe’s coattails. He received a high-profile endorsement last month from the governor at the state capitol. While early, the endorsement was really not a surprise as Ross is the only Democratic candidate in race since former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter dropped out.

Ross seems to try to use Beebe’s name in almost every interview, comparing himself to the popular incumbent governor. Some of the comparisons hold, but one difference seems to be their views on tax relief.

In 2006, the centerpiece of Beebe’s campaign against Republican candidate Asa Hutchinson was his push to eliminate the grocery tax. At that time, the difference between the two candidates mainly consisted of timing. Hutchinson wanted the tax cut immediately while Beebe preferred a phased-in approach.

Beebe was successful in the election, and to his credit followed through with the promised cuts, slowly chipping away at the sales tax on groceries over his two terms. The final piece of the complete elimination of the state sales tax on groceries — other than the one-eighth-cent constitutionally mandated conservation tax — was passed by the Legislature this year.

The tax relief was a bold proposal with big fiscal ramifications on the state budget. The most recent cut would have about a $70 million impact.

The governor would be quick to point out that the cuts were not only phased in, but also tied to projected budget surpluses or revenue growth.

This year, the Legislature adopted Beebe’s proposal to tie eliminating the rest of the food tax to ending state desegregation payments to the school districts in Pulaski County. The state attorney general has asked a federal judge to void the 1989 settlement under which those payments are made. A ruling is pending.

But the proposal from candidate Beebe in 2006 was a bold tax relief package that had not been attempted by his predecessors. Even Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee was not willing or able to accomplish it. But Beebe went out on a limb in his first gubernatorial campaign and followed through while in office.

Ross, by contrast, seems to be unwilling to make such bold commitments. Instead, he has said that he wants to make small targeted tax cuts, and only if there are surplus funds in the budget to provide for them.

“If we have a surplus and we can afford tax cuts, I will support tax cuts, but they’re going to be very targeted,” Ross told the Political Animals Club of Little Rock last month. “They’re going to be targeted at helping working families that will spend that money, put it back in the economy, create jobs. Or they’re going to be targeted at industry and people that will create jobs.”

His likely Republican opponent, Asa Hutchinson, has an opposing view. He is campaigning on his desire to cut the state income tax.

“If we are going to compete nationally and grow industry in this state, we have got to have a more competitive income tax. Right now a millionaire in New York City is in a lower state income tax bracket than someone making $35,000 a year in Arkansas. That’s wrong and we have got to be more competitive,” Hutchinson to the club in July.

But unlike last time around when he called for eliminating the grocery tax all at once, Hutchinson instead is following Beebe’s lead to lower state income taxes gradually.

“Gov. Beebe has set the mark for how you can do that without adversely impacting services and the essential responsibilities of our state toward education, prisons, and providing a safety net for our citizens,” said Hutchinson. “The answer is, you do it gradually with economic growth and you trigger it so it does not adversely affect what we need to do as a state. He did that with the sales tax on groceries. We can tackle the income tax the same way.”

While neither candidate has gotten into specifics, a contrast is already forming. Ross seems to be advocating pragmatism while Hutchinson wants to see bold income tax relief phased in over time.

On taxes, it makes you wonder which candidate is more like Mike.

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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.

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