A majority of the 135 Legislators in Little Rock campaigned on tax cuts, not surprisingly in a conservative state.
Campaigning and enacting are two different measures, and there were a plethora of ideas proposed to lessen the state treasury to the tune of about $2 billion (in context, the state budget is about $5 Billion per year).
I was told as the chairman of the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee that it was the hardest job in the Capitol, and my one objective was to say no. No to ideas that seemed good. No to ideas that were noble. No to friends. No to novel ideas that just couldn't be funded. In the end, there was a lot of "No" to go around, but fortunately, there was also some "Yes" as well.
The Session ended with between $120-$140 million in tax cuts to be enacted over the next 2 years … a big win in my book. In other words, we are returning to the taxpayers that kind of money and reducing the future growth in state government by that amount.
All of that was in addition to giving state employees a cost of living adjustment and keeping higher ed and other necessary services funded adequately.
The science that went into how each cut was selected is not very scientific at all. As chairman, both myself and the House chair have a significant amount of say in what cuts we deem to have support of the bodies, what will have enough votes to pass, and what we can afford. Within these parameters, we landed with a range of cuts that encompassed several different arenas.
A major amount of money went to a reduction in every income tax bracket that will save money for each person in Arkansas who pays taxes. Another cut was to those who pay taxes on capital gains. Still another went for the active duty military and reserve for all of their income to be tax-free. This was one that I pushed for particularly hard as it affects so many in our region. Other cuts were directly tied to manufacturing, agriculture, and business taxes to continue to help make Arkansas a destination for those who want to invest, create jobs, and grow.
We also cut the grocery tax further ($70 million) that had triggers that were prescribed by Gov. Mike Beebe that tied to desegregation monies in Pulaski County, so they were, in effect, revenue neutral.
At the end of the day, there were as many opinions as there were votes cast in the Capitol, but this is how the "package" came together, and I was pleased with the opportunity to be both an architect of the package and one of the ones responsible for seeing it get accomplished.
Another first in 2013 was the advent of the SuperProject and its funding. Amendment 82 had been passed but never used as it relates to the ability of the state to issue bonds for a SuperProject in the state.
This was more difficult than it appeared on the surface. The project was to be located in eastern Arkansas, and it is proposed to cost $1.2 billion to develop and start and employ 525 people at over $75,000 salary. The state was roughly 10% of the costs in grants and repayable loans, and we wrote in many clawback provisions that will allow us to recoup a good portion of our state investment if things didn't go as planned. If we didn't approve this deal, would we ever get another chance for a Super Project? We will never know that one but it was a worthy factor to consider.
I had a further complexity in that the Whirlpool plant closing was fresh on the mind of voters in my district and what had the state done to try to save those jobs, let alone find more new ones?
I can tell you that in my opinion, the state did everything they could do short of just giving Whirlpool loads of cash to stay here in Fort Smith. The state acted nobly and with the best intent. When someone doesn't want to be somewhere, it doesn't seem that you can persuade them even with the best intentions. Ever tried to keep your child in a store while you shopped and they did not want to be there? You end up leaving fairly quickly, as Whirlpool did.
Is there risk in the Big River Steel deal? Of course there is. Is the new economy built on incentives and ideas similar to the one presented here? Whether you like it or not, it sure is. It is certainly in all of our best interest for things to go well at this plant, and I would like to think that a large majority of voters in my district would look at the information we were presented and vote like I did, but I understand those who may not agree with all the facts as well. At the end of the day, what is good for eastern Arkansas will be good for western (and central) Arkansas as well.
There were countless other things we voted on like Voter ID and the 2nd amendment and pro-life issues that commanded much of the headlines during the Session. They sometimes split on party lines but often fell on ideology lines instead. There is much, much more that happened during the Session but for matters of time (and probably interest) I stuck to the major issues here.
How did Fort Smith and our region do this year? I believe we did well, and I fully realize that I am subjective in my analysis. We were at the table for every major decision. We made an impact on how policy was both crafted and presented. We made an impact and stood up for our University, our people, and our values, and most importantly, we were counted.
It was a long Session, and I am glad it is over and humbled to have been able to serve. It is an honor and privilege that I do not take lightly to represent our great Region, and I look forward to continuing to serve and hopefully providing relevant, active leadership in the process.