David Ray, the state director of the right-wing anti-taxation group Americans for Prosperity, which is placing hangtags on people’s doors warning “Pulaski County Residents will Pay the Price” if a proposed .25 cent tax raise on the March 2 ballot passes, said in an email yesterday that “our activists … hear many people ask why the county insists on raising taxes to expand bus routes when there are severe problems with roads and underperforming schools. Folks living in Pulaski County should understand how local government is raising revenue and spending it.”

The quarter-penny tax proposal would produce about $18 million for Rock Region Metro bus service, which now operates at the funding whim of Pulaski County municipalities and county.

Oddly, the AFP’s stance runs counter to conservative activist and Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich’s position on public transit, expressed in his white paper, “How Transit Benefits People Who Do Not Ride It:
A Conservative Inquiry,”
underwritten by the Free Congress Foundation. “The purpose of this study, the fifth in our series on conservatives and mass transit,” Weyrich and co-author William S. Lind, “is to explore more fully the question of how local authorities and transit advocates can explain the importance of public transportation to people who don’t ride it.”

Maybe Ray should read it. Or maybe he has read it and thinks it doesn’t apply to Little Rock, which doesn’t need no stinking public transportation. 

At any rate, notice the language on the hangtags and Ray’s own remarks. The AFP hangtag doesn’t say vote against the .25 tax dedicated to public transit. Ray just wants folks to “understand.” That way, AFP does not have to report to the state Ethics Commission who is funding what is clearly a “vote no on the tax” campaign and how the money is being spent. 

Graham Sloan, director of the Ethics Commission, explains that without the so-called “magic words” — “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “cast your ballot for”, “Brantley for Congress,”  “vote against,”  etc. —  “merely talking about a proposed sales tax is considered ‘issue speech’ which is constitutionally protected from government regulation.” The U.S. Supreme Court, not local government, has made that ruling.

Ray said AFP is “not opposed to all taxes: some are necessary for the core functions of government such as roads, schools and public safety. Pulaski County is trying to raise the sales tax and we want people to understand the true cost of this tax hike so that voters can study the issue and make up their own minds. This sales tax hike would raise taxes by $18 million per year and would increase the sales tax being levied by Pulaski County by 25%.”

The county tax is 1 percent. So the 25 percent hike, a fourth of a penny, would result in a tax of 1.25. You spend $100 on something, 25 cents of that would go to make Rock Region Metro a better bus service, with more frequent service; shuttles to Maumelle, Jacksonville and Sherwood; and crosstown routes in North Little Rock. 

Ray also took exception to a comment in my earlier blog post on the flyers that members of AFP don’t ride the bus, and maybe are chauffeured. Snark yes; but there’s a bit of truth in it. Ray said, for my information, that he drives a ’07 Saturn with 194,000 miles on it, and that I’m welcome to carpool with him anytime I “need a ride from Maumelle.” When the Saturn gives up the ghost, Ray could take a shuttle into Little Rock — if the .25 cent tax increase passes.

Ray continued, “The quarter cent sales tax hike would double Rock Region Metro’s budget. I’d wager that not too many private citizens in Pulaski County saw their household income double this year. If the tax increase gets voted down, Rock Region Metro will have to do the same thing Arkansas families do every day – tighten their belt and live within their means.”

Rock Region has been living within its means. Its means have been mean. And there’s no guarantee the public support from Little Rock, North Little Rock, etc. ($12.6 million) won’t dry up if the tax passes. If the cities decided to end their funding, there would be no Bus Rapid Transit to get people quickly from Little Rock to downtown on dedicated bus lanes. But Rock Region Metro Director Jarod Varner said he doesn’t expect the cities to end their funding; they may reduce it, though.

Countering AFP’s campaign against the tax (that is what it; not reason to pussyfoot around about it) is the Campaign to Connect, a grass-roots campaign headed by downtown developer Jimmy Moses, who is a member of the Rock Region Metro board of directors; City Director Kathy Webb and Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Donna Massey. They made the argument at a press conference at UALR yesterday that public transportation is essential to county growth and a boon to employment. Getting a few cars off the road, I’d add, would also translate to better air and less congestion on the roads. That is what we want, right highway department?