Political courage — doing what needs to be done even if it is not wildly popular — is a vanishing commodity.
Our own state government is a good laboratory to study this phenomenon, although Washington would serve as well. What passes for courage both places is cutting taxes, over and over and mostly for the well-to-do. No one ever puts his re-election at risk by taking a stand for lower taxes, but politicians boast about it like they expect a medal of honor. It always comes with reduced services for people or else staggering debt, the latter an option only in Trump Washington.
Highways are a good specimen for a study of political courage, because we have a long history in Arkansas for measuring it.
Although every legislator wants highways improved in his or her district and every sign points to universal demand for improvements, Governor Hutchinson has been reluctant to propose raising motor fuel taxes, which are the common and rational way to fund them because the users of the highways — motorists and commercial haulers and shippers — pay for them. Hutchinson is not going to risk irritating anyone. He says he and the legislature will ask voters someday to choose a tax to pay for them.
Highways have always been popular and people still seem willing to bear any tax to build them. Arkansas went bankrupt in the 1920s and 1930s trying to finance them and had to be bailed out by Franklin Roosevelt. Every time a governor has proposed a tax or a bond issue to build highways, the legislature has gone along, even though it nearly always takes a three-fourths vote of each house. When road taxes or bond issues have been referred to the voters, they approve them by landslides.
I once catalogued the legislative votes on highway and other taxes for 20 years and discovered that no legislator got beat after voting for taxes. In 1965, at Gov. Orval Faubus’ last legislative session, John Harberson, a lawmaker from Howard County, voted against a penny increase in the gasoline tax. A year and a half later, he led a delegation of county and city officials to the state Highway Commission to plead for improving the highway through the county seat. The chairman cut him off.
“Wait a minute, Mr. Harberson,” he said. “Your county doesn’t need any highways. You said so yourself last year. You voted against the gas tax. Next delegation please.”
The voters turned Harberson out of office the next election.
Gov. Dale Bumpers in 1973 wanted to pave more rural roads throughout the state. He had a couple of rural representatives in his office to brainstorm about it. One, Wayne Hampton of Stuttgart, had been on the Highway Commission for 10 years. Bumpers suggested that the legislature pass an act putting a gasoline tax dedicated to rural roads before the voters.
“Governor,” Hampton said, “you asked for this job. People trusted you to make the decisions about how to fix the state’s problems, not to turn around and ask them what to do. And they elected me in Arkansas County to do the same. We asked to be leaders, not followers.”
Bumpers never forgot the lesson. The legislature adopted his fuel tax for rural roads by a big supermajority, along with income and other excise taxes, and not a single legislator who voted for any of them lost his job. In the next election, Bumpers defeated — by a landslide — a 30-year U.S. senator who was backed by every major interest group in the state.
Now, neither the governor nor any member of his party is willing to lend his name to any fiscal measure that does not give some benefit to a large class of taxpayers, chiefly the wealthy.
Arkansas is now building a few big roads, thanks to the federal government and a 10-year, half-cent sales tax lopsidedly approved by the voters in 2012 — a measure referred to them by the less-than-courageous Gov. Mike Beebe and a legislature by then effectively controlled by Republicans.
If voters across the state knew what was being done with their temporary sales taxes, which were supposed to build and improve “four-lane highways” in their areas, we might see the first example of buyers’ remorse on a tax increase. They might march on the Capitol or the courthouses, like sharecroppers did in the Great Depression, when, owing to tax cuts, Arkansas couldn’t provide relief to thousands suffering from joblessness and drought.
A huge part of the sales taxes and federal match, a billion or so dollars, is being used to build 6- to 12-lane superhighways around downtown Little Rock so that job commuters from bedroom communities around the metropolitan area can get to and from work a few minutes faster (and, of course, to rebuild a poorly designed bridge over the Arkansas River). Most of Little Rock opposes it, dreading both the environmental deterioration and another 10 years of hair-raising driving through construction. Voters might have a case that it is all illegal, since the act and the ballot limited the spending to four-lane roadways.
You would have to guess that the current Supreme Court would construe “four lanes” to mean whatever the Highway Commission says, “four lanes more or less.”
Postscript: I should recognize one modern example of courage. Gov. Mike Huckabee raised more taxes than any governor in Arkansas history, including adding 3 cents in 1999 to motor fuel levies. He once begged the legislature at a special session to pass just any tax and he would sign it. Voters never punished him. Of course, he ran for president in 2008 on the claim that he was the only governor in Arkansas to cut taxes (he signed a Democratic income tax cut) and that he stopped Democratic legislators from raising taxes. When a television interviewer asked him about the gasoline tax increase, Huckabee claimed, falsely, that he had nothing to do with the gasoline tax — that voters did it. Voters had approved a highway bond issue but not the tax act that he signed.