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Behind severance tax opposition 

Opposition to a ballot initiative to increase Arkansas's low severance tax on natural gas is cranking up.

An ad hoc group for that purpose, Stop the Gas Tax AR has a website on-line (stopthegastaxar.com), a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. There is a no-name e-mail address and a phone number answered by a machine. It's been ginning out talking points against a tax increase since late January. Signs bearing the committee logo have started turning up at convenience stores and other places in the shale zone, particularly.

Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that the effort is an offshoot of the anti-tax committee he heads, Arkansans for Jobs and Affordable Energy. According to its most recent Ethics Commission filing, it has raised $400,000 (in equal contributions from Stephens Production and Southwestern Energy) and spent $223,000 on a variety of legal and consulting costs. Zook said surveys indicate the issue is "winnable" for his side, but it will require some education — which could indicate that it's not an automatic win for the gas interests. The message will work on explaining how severance tax rates in neighboring states, when various differences are factored in, are comparable to the low effective rate in Arkansas.

Before it's done, $400,000 will be a drop in the bucket, of course. Major corporations will also be free to spend independently in the effort.

The Committee for a Fair Severance Tax, chaired by former gas company executive Sheffield Nelson, has raised about $55,000 so far, but gotten a great deal of free media thanks to road damage by drilling rigs, a variety of environmental issues and the Arkansas Municipal League's support. Its proposal for a 7 percent severance tax would provide increased support for city, county and state roads.

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