Irate Arkansans Use Guns to Get Road Tax Relief
Little Rock, Ark., . — In Craighead County the irate taxpayers of Arkansas got at least temporary relief from the burden of the special taxes for road projects, over which there is a State-wide protest described in dispatches to The New York Times in the last two days. They took the law into their own hands, and at the point of the gun forced the Commissioners of a road improvement district to resign before work was commenced on a stretch of road which was estimated to cost $50,000 a mile through territory where the land is valued at only from $5 to $10 an acre.
The Commissioners were first asked to suspend their plans. They refused. They were then asked to resign. They likewise refused, and went on with their plans. The taxpayers of the districts were aroused to such a pitch that mob violence was openly threatened, but their lawyers urged against violence, so a suit to enjoin the Commissioners was filed in the Lake City Chancery Court, with Judge Wheatly presiding.
From the tenor of the hearing, during a morning session of court, the taxpayers became convinced that they would lose. Their lawyers frankly confessed that they had no case, legally. So just as the court was adjourning for a noon recess, a body of taxpayers marched into the courtroom and presented typewritten resignations to the Commissioners and to the attorneys for the Commissioners as well, and with the business ends of revolvers motioned for the Commissioners to sign. The Judge tried to quell the disturbance, but the taxpayers kept their guns drawn until the resignations were duly signed. They then marched out.
The leader of the taxpayers was a young man named Alexander MacDonald, a kinsman of United States Senator Caraway [a follow-up article corrected this, saying they weren’t related]. MacDonald was subsequently fined $500 and sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court. He was the only member of the party cited for contempt. MacDonald did not go to jail, he did not pay the fine, and subsequently the Governor by proclamation relieved him of both the fine and the imprisonment. He continues to be one of the most popular citizens of Craighead County.
In several other counties resignations have been secured through other unpleasant means of procedure.
The article goes on to say that “special” taxes like the road tax constituted the overwhelmingly largest taxes on land in the Mississippi delta region, and of these the road tax represented about 40%, rising to about 50% with the new taxes. These taxes were levied per acre, regardless of the quality of the land, so unproductive swamp was taxed as much as productive farms. The tax came to about $5 per acre, in an area where cotton farms were renting for about $7.50–$10 per acre.
The Legislature used some chicanery to slip the road district creation bill that included the tax into something called a “curative bill” so that no otherwise Constitutionally-required public announcements needed to be made about the tax before its enactment. Lawmakers of course managed to make themselves the beneficiaries of much of the public expenses, with one legislator, who was also the attorney for the road district, using his position to block any legislation to rescind the tax. (A later federal investigation uncovered lots of legal double-billing and other accounting funny-business.)
Another instance in Poinsett County called to the attention of the writer was a road tax levied on a farmer whose property is on the St. Francis River, one of the principal Arkansas tributaries to the Mississippi. The Road Commissioners of one of the districts decided that this man’s farm would be benefited by the construction of a road that is on the other side of the St. Francis River from his property. The amount of this special tax for this year is in the neighborhood of $400 and the only way the farmer can get to the road in order to avail himself of the “betterment” is by using a boat. The farmer has announced that he will not pay this tax and that if necessary he will oppose its forcible collection with a gun, and he is perhaps the most famous shot in his particular section of the lumber and cotton country.
Past government road-building boondoggles had seen money collected and spent, without much in the way of roads to show for it. In addition to kickbacks and other graft of that sort, politicians and well-connected people would invest in empty, low-priced lots and then have roads built on or to them to increase their value.
Part of their motivation for stealing money via roads projects was that state road improvement projects were also eligible for subsidies from the federal government, so for every dollar they stole directly from their own citizens, they could get a grant of stolen money from the feds.
At one point, I kid you not, “an act passed by both houses of the [Arkansas] Legislature in , to compel the Road Commissioners to make an accounting, was stolen on its way to the Governor so that he could not sign it and make it law.” Parliamentary procedure, Arkansas style.