'Tax Me More Fund' Off to Slow Start

The Arkansas budget may be $142 million in the hole, but those who favor raising taxes are not exactly beating at the doors to contribute to a public fund created to close the shortfall.

Nearly one week after Gov. Mike Huckabee established the "Tax Me More Fund," the state has received only five contributions totaling $260.

Huckabee spokesman Rex Nelson said the fund was created in response to a handful of legislators and political columnists who called for the government to go into special session to raise taxes to balance the budget. 

Huckabee, who is "firmly opposed" to raising taxes, told tax hike supporters that they are free to contribute voluntarily.

"He needed a way to illustrate their point," Nelson said, so he came up with the "Tax Me More Fund."

That way tax hike supporters could contribute to the fund and "assuage their guilt" for not paying more money in taxes, Nelson said.

One such donor, Democratic state Sen. John Riggs, said he contributed to the problem by passing the governor's budget in the first place. So he ponied up $100 for the fund.

"We share responsibility for the [budget] fiasco," Riggs, who represents Little Rock, said of the deficit. "I am responsible for my actions and am as guilty as everyone else for letting the governor's budget go through."

Riggs, who voted for the budget last April, said Huckabee prioritized a bass fishing museum over student scholarship funds and teacher raises. Now, he said, the state is stuck looking for ways to raise revenue without raising taxes.

Nelson said that's not so. The Legislature added the bass fishing museum into their portion of the bill. Besides, the impasse is primarily due to the state's Revenue Stabilization Act, which requires a balanced budget. Under the law, if the budget comes up short, automatic triggers start lopping off programs from the bottom up. That way the $3 billion yearly budget stays balanced until lawmakers return to approve the next biennial budget.

Riggs said he doesn't think the consensus is there to return to a special session, but offered a variety of suggestions to raise revenues and bring the programs back to life. Among them are property tax hikes, repeal of tax breaks for the newspaper industry and a hike in gas taxes; along with non-traditional revenue sources such as a state lottery system or video poker machines at race tracks, which the governor opposes.

Huckabee, however, has no intention of raising taxes and would rather run the government with a tightened belt until the Legislature meets again in January 2003.

"During a recession is the worst time to raise taxes," Nelson said.