“Who are you voting for?” is a question Arkansans often ask each other every couple of years. A better question in 2012 might be, “What are you voting for?”
That’s because the action this year won’t be in the races involving candidates. Oh, there will be plenty of sound and fury in the presidential race, but it will signify nothing as Mitt Romney is certain to win Arkansas’ six electoral votes. Meanwhile, there are no statewide races, the congressional races don’t seem particularly competitive, and state legislative races, though important, don’t typically excite many voters.
On the other hand, Arkansans will be asked to approve five ballot proposals, four of which will inspire passion (and donors) because they involve taxes, casino gambling and legalizing medical marijuana.
I should clarify. There currently are five proposals. We’ll have to wait and see if one or more is found to have too many invalid petition signatures (already happened with another casino amendment) or doesn’t survive a court challenge (always seems to happen).
Let’s start with the tax increases. One, a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature, would raise the state sales tax by .5 percent over 10 years to build $1.3 billion worth of new four-lanes across the state. Supporters say Arkansas needs the roads and the economic activity they would produce. The counterargument is that the state doesn’t need the taxes and doesn’t need more miles to maintain.
Then there’s The Natural Gas Severance Tax Act of 2012, which would raise the tax on natural gas extracted from the ground to 7 percent from its current rate of 1.25 to 5 percent. The money would pay for highways and roads.
Arkansas is in the midst of a natural gas boom that has created thousands of jobs while producing a relatively clean-burning fuel that is reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. Opponents of the proposal say that begs the question: Why raise taxes and discourage the growth of this new industry?
Supporters say that most of the taxes would be paid by big out-of-state companies that currently are making a killing while damaging roads that were not designed to carry drilling rigs and big trucks. According to the state Highway Department, $450 million in highway repairs already are needed in the Fayetteville shale area, where drilling has occurred.
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act would establish a system for legally distributing marijuana to certain medical patients. Some say smoking marijuana eases the suffering associated with certain diseases. Who am I to argue with a cancer patient who swears he’s found relief using a drug he currently must obtain illegally?
On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration does argue, saying that smoking marijuana isn’t beneficial. Opponents also say the system would be abused and would lead to further marijuana legalization. Even if this proposal were to pass, smoking marijuana for any reason, including a medical one, still would be a violation of federal law. Legal in Arkansas, illegal in America – how’s that going to work?
A group known as Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues has offered an amendment that would allow itself – and only itself – to operate one casino in each of four counties. That means voters would be enshrining a monopoly into the Arkansas Constitution. That’s nice work if you can get it. The amendment states its operations could not be regulated by the Legislature or any other political subdivision of the state.
I don’t have a point-counterpoint on this one. The words “unregulated casino monopoly” don’t inspire confidence in me. Folks who want to gamble already can go to the horse track in Hot Springs or the dog track in West Memphis, both of which operate their own casinos – perhaps temporarily if this amendment passes. Some friends and I are trying to get in the habit of meeting every three months to play very low-stakes poker, and we’ll welcome others. But Arkansas doesn’t need more casinos or the problems they create.
Finally, voters will be asked to allow cities and counties to create development and redevelopment districts. That would enable certain areas – poor ones, for example – to receive special tax incentives in hopes of boosting economic activity. Currently, cities and counties can’t be divided that way.
Good idea or bad, that one’s going to have a tough time getting attention this year.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org