Legislature meets in the snow; mischief possible. Cut unemployment benefits; harm asbestos-injured; cut Bart Hester's tax bill | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Legislature meets in the snow; mischief possible. Cut unemployment benefits; harm asbestos-injured; cut Bart Hester's tax bill

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2015 at 9:32 AM

click to enlarge SIGN MAN: Sen. Bart Hester is lead sponsor on a bill hurried through the Senate to reduce taxes on prime billboards. Hester, BTW, is a billboard owner.
  • SIGN MAN: Sen. Bart Hester is lead sponsor on a bill hurried through the Senate to reduce taxes on prime billboards. Hester, BTW, is a billboard owner.
The legislature is meeting this morning and that only increases opportunity for mischief.

Why? For one thing, people out in the state who might like to testify for and against legislation won't be able to make it committee meetings.

For example:

* CUTTING UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: A House committee is scheduled to hear HB 1489 by Rep. Lane Jean and Sens. Jim Hendren and Bart Hester to shorten unemployment benefits from 25 to 20 weeks and to cut the rate. The AFL-CIO will oppose the legislation. It notes the cuts in benefits will trim annual spending by $50 million, though the trust fund surplus has been rising — at $236 million at the end of 2014 and heading to $333 million at the end of 2015, which is more than double the highest surplus on record. Hughes told the committee businesses have no "skin in the game." Workers get a cut and businesses get a rate cut. The average $21 weekly cut is devastating to people struggling to buy groceries, Hughes said. Jean said people with payrolls were requesting it. UPDATE: The bill passed on a voice vote.

* SPEAKING OF WORKERS: Lobbyists are scurrying to pass out of House Judiciary this morning a bill to limit exposure to costs of workers claims from asbestos-related illnesses. UPDATE: Not today.

* AND SPEAKING OF BART HESTER: The senator is a busy man, what with gay bashing and worker punishment. But he has to look out for himself, too.

Take a look at this little jewel on which he is lead sponsor: It  probably provides a whopping tax cut for billboard owners. Billboards would be taxed as personal property not according to value (income, traffic, location etc.) like your car, but be limited to 20 percent of the cost of the sign.

This little ol' bill was filed at 2:26 p.m. Monday and by 11:37 a.m. the next day it had been assigned to Revenue and Taxation and given a do-pass before anyone knew it was coming. No revenue impact is given because it affects local, not state, revenues.  But there are a lot of billboards in this state producing a whole lot of income.

PS — Benton County tax records show Bart Hester is a billboard owner. I've asked him if he's filed a notice with the Senate that he's sponsoring and voting on a bill that will give his business a tax cut. Sometimes he's delinquent on this payments. You have to do some digging to know that HCO LLC, which Hester does disclose on his statement of financial interest, includes billboard properties. Just another example of the shortcoming of our ethics disclosure law.

This bill isn't on the Senate calendar today. Yet.

UPDATE: Debra Asbury, who's being replaced as director of the state Assessment Coordination Division after 32 years of work in the agency, explains what's going on.

Arkansas has lacked a standard for valuing billboard. Last year, it began working on a standard, not in place for county assessors to use as a guide, that follows models used in North Carolina and Oklahoma and other states. At its core, it is cost based. But location figures into cost, an "intangible" that billboard owners don't want considered.

No wonder, some old-style poster billboard across the street fro the Capitol produce about $15 a year in property taxes though a conservative estimate of their value is $15,000 and such billboards rent for about $750 a month in Pulaski County.

Asbury was going to testify against the bill yesterday, but it was called and endorsed without notice and she wasn't called to testify. She said she will testify in the House, though she may no longer be a state employee by then. Asbury, a Huckabee appointee to her current job and self-described as a Republican, said: "I feel very strongly about this. I haven't been in this business since 1983 not to feel pretty passionate about it."

She said the issue goes well beyond billboards. The minute their tax bills are reduced or held down by citing an intangible value in property, it opens the door for all industries and even home owners to say they shouldn't be taxed on intangibles. "Location, location, location," Asbury said, intoning the mantra of real estate values. A house in the Heights is with more than the same house in Southwest Little Rock. A billboard in Pulaski County is worth more than a billboard in Stone County. If assessors are deprived of the ability to recognize that, property isn't being taxed fairly. Asbury said that since many billboard owners are converting to real estate investment trusts, it might be time to consider them under real estate rather than personal property taxes.

Hester hasn't returned my inquiry. In addition to owning billboards himself, he has a friend who's with Lamar Outdoor, one of the nation's biggest billboard companies. I'm a former Lamar employ. In the summer of 1968, I dug postholes creosoted catwalks and cut weeds in front of Lamar billboards across Southwest Louisiana. I vowed to find office work.

Under the guidelines that billboard currently paying $15 might go to $200. Hester complained to Asbury about the high percentage increase. Asbury said it's true. But she also said when somebody gets caught stealing you don't forgive it and allow them just to pay back a little, you assess the going rate.

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