From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Armey derides tobacco tax; King derides AR law schools; Beebe derides partisan tactics.

In Cigarette Tax on 3 February 2009 at 5:20 pm

Fighting over Gov. Beebe’s proposed tobacco tax increase reached a new peak today as Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey spoke against the hike at the Capitol rotunda. Supported by a contingent of Arkansas legislators — including Arkansas House Minority Leader Bryan King, who recommended that the state shut down one of its law schools to save money — Armey assailed what he saw as unnecessary spending in the Governor’s tax-funded healthcare package.

In front of a largely unsympathetic crowd — one of many pro-tax signs said Dick, Stop Blowing Smoke — Armey repeated arguments against the tax that have been in wide circulation. He said that people would buy their cigarettes in other states, that the tax was regressive and unfair to smokers, and that the state should fund a trauma system through some other means. He offered support for HB1238, which proposes to fund the system through fines on drunk driving, domestic violence and other criminal offenses.

“Are we here in Arkansas a state that dislikes smokers more than it dislikes wife beaters?” Armey asked.

But Armey also went beyond commonplace arguments against the tax to pin supporters of the increase as big-government profligates. “If you want to fund a trauma system, you ought to scrub your budget and make room,” he said.

Armey went on to accuse Beebe and other tax supporters of larding their proposal with unnecessary measures and cutting backroom deals in order to attract votes. (Tobacco tax money not spent on a trauma system will be used on other healthcare provisions.) He declined to say which parts of the proposal he meant.

Asked after the rally about Armey’s claims, Rep. King also spoke in nonspecific terms. “It started with a trauma center, and now it’s a trauma system,” King said. “Rural health is a great cause, but people need to know that they won’t get the money that gets promised to them [from a tobacco tax increase].”

(Read on for more, including details on a debate between Armey and AR Surgeon General Joe Thompson, Rep. King’s proposal to close an Arkansas law school, and Gov. Beebe’s reaction to the rally.)

Armey told the crowd he was only interested in lower taxes and took special care to distance himself from the tobacco lobby. It has been widely assumed that FreedomWorks receives money from tobacco companies. Armey declined to answer a question about who funds FreedomWorks.

“I have not now, nor have I ever been, a lobbyist for tobacco companies,” he told the rally. “That’s just a fiction.”

Yesterday the Step-Up Coalition, a group in favor of the cigarette tax, proposed that Armey debate Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson after the rally. Armey declined this morning, calling the debate a ‘gimmick’. He said he would gladly participate in a debate if allowed more time to fit it into his schedule.

Step-Up Coalition spokesman Robert McClarty disputed Armey’s assertion that the invitation was not given in good faith. He said Armey had not provided much advance notice of his trip. (The Arkansas GOP confirmed the visit to the media last Thursday.)

“He has time to raise money for politics,” McClarty said after the rally. “We’re in a room just sixty feet away.”

Armey gave his talked backed by about ten legislators, several of them first-term members. The most notable supporter, however, was Rep. King, leader of the minority GOP in the House. He, too, stated anti-tax and budget-cutting principles.

Those principles are so strong that he suggested a relatively novel idea: By closing down one of the two state law schools, Rep. King said, the taxpayers could save up to $6 million.

“I don’t think this state is well-served by two law schools,” Rep. King told the crowd.

While talking to reporters later in the day, Gov. Beebe had pointed words for the rally organizers.

The governor ridiculed accusations that he is a tax-and-spender who has loaded his healthcare proposal with pork. “No governor has cut more taxes than Mike Beebe,” Beebe said. “And there’s more to come.”

Told of Rep. King’s remarks about cutting a law school, Beebe said, “I’d don’t think he’d have an easy time doing that, but I’d have fun watching him try.”

“I think it’s a bit overly partisan, don’t you?” Beebe continued. “Overt partisanship is not in the interest of good public policy. I regret that [Rep. King] brought that up.”

  1. […] example, John Williams reports more in-depth on tobacco silliness today. Rep. Bryan King, who goes by the  title of minority leader, […]

  2. I am so glad that someone else thought it was worth noting that a NW Arkansas lawmaker called for closing one of the two law schools in our state. I wonder if he thinks we should close the Bowen school in Little Rock over the school in Fayetteville…not sure either argument is going to make him sound more savvy when it comes to funding a new medical “finishing” school campus.

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