Paul Jacob

Supporters of Amendment 3 at the time reported numerous illegal mixes of government operations and politics. Opposition literature was passed out at the offices of various state agencies and was sent home from school in the backpacks of children. A humongous sign against axing the food tax covered several stories of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, a landmark in downtown Little Rock — and mostly funded by the state. (The hospital is located just off the Wilbur Mills Freeway, named for central Arkansas’s most powerful pork-barreling congressman. Mills rose to chair the Ways and Means Committee before his career hit the ditch in 1974, when he was stopped for driving under the influence and his companion, Argentine stripper Fanne Foxe, fled the scene by jumping into the Washington, DC, Tidal Basin.)

When petitions had been submitted that summer, the Ax the Food Tax measure enjoyed better than 70 percent support. The sales tax is a regressive tax that hits the poor hardest — and when slapped on essentials such as food and medicine, cannot be avoided. Even opponents of the measure (i.e. supporters of continuing to get lots of money from state taxpayers) admitted the sales tax on groceries was one of the worst. Nonetheless, they spent lavishly on a full-fledged media barrage warning of something approaching an all-out apocalypse if government lost that tax revenue.

On Election Day, Amendment 3 was crushed, 61 to 39 percent. The voters had spoken and they didn’t ax the tax at all; instead, voters axed the ax-wielding anti-tax activists.

But a funny thing happened as the Ax the Food Tax initiative was being thoroughly rejected by Arkansas voters. Voters continued to think about the food tax. And they didn’t like it. They might even prefer to abolish it. But it must be accomplished with care, not abruptly.

Four years later, in the 2006 race for governor, both the Republican, U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, and the Democrat, then Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe, campaigned on their desire and commitment to cutting and ultimately ending the state sales tax on food and medicine. Who was more committed? Who would cut it further and faster?

When Governor Beebe took office the sales tax on food and medicine was six cents on the dollar. Today it is 1.5 cents. Someday soon it may be zero. Abolished.

Not bad for a losing initiative.

Some complain about the initiative process . . . because they didn’t win. And they complain when special interests spend lavishly to sink a proposal they favor — as was the case with Amendment 3.

Yet, no political process, at least no worthwhile process, can guarantee a perfect outcome every time. The initiative process guarantees something else. It assures that issues cannot be bottled up and ignored by politicians. It doesn’t promise that the little guy will defeat big business or big labor or big anything, but that the little guy gets a chance to participate and a chance to win.

That’s a winning system . . . even when we lose.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.