Two taxes, presidential election, capture conscience
Ft. Smith Southwest Times Record USA TODAY NETWORK
In Sebastian County, two taxes gained arguably just as much attention as the decision over who will be in the White House come Jan. 20.
Sebastian County voters struck down the 0.25% sales tax that sent roughly $6 million to support the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
However, the county did opt in favor of Issue 1, which indefinitely puts a 0.5% sales tax toward fixing, and in some cases improving or expanding, roads throughout the state.
These issues were voted upon under the backdrop of the presidential election between President Donald Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden that proved to be one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent memory.
See ELECTION, Page 3A
Attorney Greg Magness, left, earned more than 60% of the vote in Sebastian County over public defender Rita Howard Watkins to become the Sebastian County Division VI circuit judge in 2021.
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With 26,201 voters casting their ballots against the UAFS support tax, it was struck down by just shy of 6,000 votes in Sebastian County, or 56.43% against. If passed, the tax would have been extended for 10 years after it is set to sunset Dec. 31, 2021.
The tax, once it expires, will lower the county tax rate to 1% unless another tax is raised before then.
The only four-year university in Arkansas supported by a local tax, UAFS uses the funding it nets from the tax to maintain buildings, laboratories and classrooms required to support accredited four-year degrees. Money from the tax has also been used to renovate campus facilities like the Baldor Building and expand library volumes.
UAFS Chancellor Terisa Riley before the election said the university could increase tuition without the funds from the tax.
The loss could be attributed to Citizens Against Unfair Taxation fighting the extension of the tax less than a month before the general election. The group’s chairman, Joey McCutchen, said he believes the 0.25% tax burdens the residents of Sebastian County and called Riley’s comment on increased tuition 'fear mongering.'
McCutchen’s efforts were successful despite the Sebastian County Quorum Court supporting the tax. The group Friends of UAFS also supported the tax but declined to formally debate Citizens Against Unfair Taxation on the matter.
“This wasn’t a referendum on the importance of UAFS. We know it is important to the community, and it still will be. It’s a first-rate university, but it’s time for the state to step up,” McCutchen said after the tax extension was denied by voters.
Riley in December announced there will be no special election for the tax, noting the university will review recommendations from subcommittees to reorganize and cut back funds to adjust for lost revenue.
Sebastian County voters followed the rest of the state and passed Issue 1 by 58.57%, or 27,289 of the total votes cast for the state question. The state voted 55.33% for the tax.
The issue indefinitely extends the 0.5% sales tax past its 2023 expiration date, putting $290 million annually toward roads in the state. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said $205 million would go toward the Arkansas Department of Transportation, while the other $85 million would go toward city and county street funds.
Hutchinson campaigned heavily for the tax in 2020, stating that the question to provide security for highway funding is “vital for the supply chain,” especially during COVID-19. He also said the funds would result in $8.2 billion in economic activity over 10 years.
Arkansas Highway Commissioner Keith Gibson, a Fort Smith native, said before Election Day that Issue 1 would secure $270 million over 10 years for a two-lane stretch of I-49 from Alma to Chaffee Crossing. It’s half of the estimated $540 million needed to finish a bridge over the Arkansas River and twolane sections of I-49 from Alma to Chaffee Crossing and from Greenwood to Y City, he said.
Highway commissioners would vote on the funding in hopes of securing federal funding for the projects as well, Gibson said.
Citizens Against Unfair Taxation opposed this tax as well, saying there hasn’t been enough progress on I-49 with the current 0.5% sales tax to justify an extension.
Gibson, after the passage of the roads tax, said the funds are also proposed to be used to construct a bypass in Greenwood, resurface Midland Boulevard, Rogers Avenue and Highway 45 and expand Highway 22.
Despite Trump’s loss, Arkansas voted heavily in favor of the president, with 62.4% of the state’s vote going his way. Sebastian County marginally exceeded the state’s vote for the president – Trump received 66.18% of the county’s vote.
The state’s six electoral votes contributed to the 232 votes the president received this election.
Both opposition to and support of Trump were seen in the River Valley on Oct. 17, when a parade in support of the president proceeded from Greenwood up through Fort Smith and out to Roland before it doubled back. Counter protesters stood outside the Walmart on Rogers Avenue as they passed by, yelling and waving protest signs.
Biden received 34.8% of the state’s vote and 30.73% of the vote in Sebastian County. The former vice president won the presidential election, earning 306 electoral votes to Trump’s total.
Trump throughout his four years as president helped bolster the nation’s economy and appointed two conservative Supreme Court justices. He is also credited for pushing Operation Warp Speed to quickly develop a COVID-19 vaccine. His opponents throughout his term accused him of turning a blind eye to possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, stacking the Supreme Court and using rhetoric that could be interpreted as discriminatory toward minorities. These accusations came to a head in 2020 amid an impeachment, the turmoil of COVID-19 and widespread racial unrest following the death of George Floyd in May.
The 2020 presidential election was punctuated by political gridlock at a federal level, widespread racial unrest and debate over how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. It came to a head in September and October, when Trump and Biden sparred in heated presidential debates filled with slights and appeals to emotion.
Biden, who served as vice president under former President Barack Obama, was accused on the campaign trail of sexual misconduct, not being progressive enough as a Democrat and his son’s alleged involvement in a scandal out of Ukraine.
Biden on the campaign trail and as president-elect has said he will listen to scientists when making decisions about COVID-19 and decriminalize simple possession of all illegal substances.
While the two taxes and the presidential election gained the most attention in the Fort Smith region, other elections were also held in Sebastian County. Here are the results:
• Attorney Greg Magness won 60.54% of the vote to secure the Sebastian County Division VI circuit judgeship over public defender Rita Howard Watkins. He will replace Division VI Circuit Judge James O. Cox in 2021.
• U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, won 66.08% of the vote to continue representing Arkansas' 3rd Congressional in Washington. He received the majority of the votes over Democratic candidate Celeste Williams and Libertarian candidate Michael Kalagias.
• AR District 77 state Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, and District 76 state Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith, defeated their challengers to return to the Arkansas House of Represent.
• Lorrie Glidewell Runion, Rebekah Schwartz and Linda Willsey Murry earned the votes to take office as Sebastian County justices of the peace. Republican Justice of the Peace 7 Jim Medley is returning to the Quorum Court after earning more votes than Libertarian challenger William Whitfield Hyman.
Attorney Joey McCutchen holds a news conference on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, about the University of Arkansas Fort Smith 0.25% sales tax. McCutchen claimed the tax, which was ultimately not renewed by Sebastian County voters, claimed there was enough money for the sales tax to end. A. DREW SMITH/TIMES RECORD