story by Michael Tilley
That the historically politically conservative region that stretches from Fort Smith up through to Bentonville voted for a tax increase and favored the medicinal use of marijuana is proof that the Arkansas voter does not cleanly fit in any political category.
Combined, voters in the geographically connected counties of Benton, Crawford, Sebastian and Washington counties supported the half cent sales tax increase for highway improvements by a 57.8% to 42.2% margin. The tax plan was approved in all counties, with the widest margin in Sebastian County at 58.85% voting for the measure.
The new tax proceeds will pay for bonds to finance $1.3 billion in four-lane highway improvements, which, with existing revenue, will provide $1.8 billion for four-lane projects during the next 10 years.
Cities and counties will each receive 15% of program revenue, with that estimated to direct $670 million in the next 10 years to local governments for road projects.
Combined, the proposal to allow medical marijuana was supported by 51.5% in the four counties. However, the measure failed in Benton County (47.4% for, 52.2% against) and Crawford County (47.7% for, 52.6% against). The proposal failed to pass statewide. Statewide (with 68 of 75 counties fully reporting), the measure received 501,470 votes (48.5%) for and 531,664 votes (51.5%) against.
The measure would have allowed for up to 30 nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries in Arkansas. Local cities and counties could choose to ban them. If the law had been approved, marijuana would only be available to people with a prescription for certain health conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDs, Alzheimer’s disease and several other conditions. The proposal allows for a patient to have up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana without the threat of prosecution.
Clint Reed, a political consultant with Little Rock-based The Impact Group, said he was “really fascinated” by the seemingly mixed messages voters sent in the Nov. 6 election.
“I think there was a totally different electorate that showed up this year than in 2010,” said Reed, who typically works on Republican campaigns and conservative issues.
Will Watson, a Democratic consultant and owner of Natural State Strategies, was not surprised by voter support in Northwest Arkansas of raising the sales tax to support road improvements. He said the Northwest Arkansas Council and other business groups in the region “made a pretty compelling case” for why the tax revenue would improve area roads and create jobs.
“The extra roads and jobs are probably what trumped the whole anti-tax climate thing,” Watson said.
Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, said he was somewhat surprised the road tax passed, and by the wide margin. Statewide (with 68 of 75 counties fully reporting), the measure received 592,980 votes (58.2%) for and 425,733 votes (41.8%) against.
“It was a tax, but it would bring jobs and hopefully more opportunity to parts of the state,” Files said when asked why he thought the measure was approved by voters. “There is still a prevailing thought that we pay too much in taxes” … but people recognize “we need good roads and infrastructure.”
Files did not support the road tax initiative when it was considered by the Arkansas General Assembly for placement on the 2012 general election ballot. He said the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, identify the special projects funded under the plan.
As it turned out, Sebastian and Crawford counties will receive none of the $1.548 billion in special project funding the tax will create. The central Arkansas area is estimated to receive $648 million in special project funding, and Northwest Arkansas could get $375 million.
“They had the list (during Senate consideration) because they had the amount,” Files said.
Reed believes the message sent by voters in what was supposed to be a more conservative – if not religiously so — part of Arkansas speaks to a demographic shift.
He said more people in the area – especially in Northwest Arkansas – have a middle to higher income, and more education.
“A lot of those people are moving to Northwest Arkansas, and they, by nature, are more progressive. I think they are fiscal conservatives … but those people have a strand of progressivism in them,” Reed said.
Watson echoed Reed’s analysis, but added that the religious element remains strong, as witnessed by the marijuana measure failing in Benton and Crawford counties.
“You can see, with this, the libertarian ideas within the Republican Party” that are about personal liberty freedom of choice “and they have that in common with liberals,” Watson said. “The compassion group made a pretty compelling argument (for medical marijuana), but you have that religious element that mobilized themselves pretty effectively.”
Files said he was “shocked” that the medical marijuana measure received so many votes considering the number of police, medical and religious groups that came out against it. Like Reed and Watson, Files believes medical marijuana proponents will bring another measure before Arkansans as soon as possible.
NEW POLITICAL LANDSCAPE
The overall results of the primary and general elections in 2012 were being picked apart by people like Reed and Watson before the final votes were tallied. Reed says he won’t be surprised if the 2014 electorate will be different than what appeared in 2012.
“That’s what guys like me are doing now, trying to figure out who is turning out in 2014,” Reed said with a laugh.
But a similar strategy may continue to play a lead role in campaigning – at least for legislative races.
“It’s still going to be about ‘How do you survive both a primary and a general election?’ … They (legislative candidates in conservative areas) have to be conservative enough to survive a primary and then have enough of a moderate tone to win a general election,” Reed explained.
Democrats held a 20-15 advantage over Republicans in the Arkansas Senate prior to Tuesday’s elections. But the GOP picked up 6 seats putting them in charge by a 21-14 advantage. Republicans have a 51-48 advantage over Democrats in the House after Tuesday’s elections.
Reed estimates that 20%-25% of the Arkansas voters are “very conservative” socially and fiscally. A “sustainable majority” among either party in the Arkansas General Assembly will have to “walk the tight rope” of keeping taxes low, but also providing for critical infrastructure needs, Reed said.
With that in mind, Reed advises his clients to not sign no-tax pledges “because you never know what the future holds.”
Watson said the slim Republican majority in the Arkansas House of Representatives could be good if it forces compromise on key issues like Medicaid funding.
“I don’t think anyone is in the mood for any new taxes … but there are some hard decisions to be made on Medicaid. You’ve got to cut benefits, or you have to find a new funding source,” Watson said. “I think it will be a good exercise for Arkansas … and hopefully will prompt better solutions” if Democrats and Republicans have to “really work together on the big problems facing the state.”
As to the Republican Party of Arkansas building on gains in the 2014 election cycle, Watson answered with a question.
“What happens for Republicans in Arkansas when Barack Obama is no longer on the ballot in Arkansas?”