Arkansas gov­er­nor, law­mak­ers hope for high­way fund­ing fix

Texarkana Gazette - - METRO/STATE - By An­drew DeMillo

LIT­TLE ROCK—Arkansas’ Repub­li­can gov­er­nor and leg­isla­tive leaders say they’re hope­ful they can find a high­way fund­ing so­lu­tion that’s been elu­sive in re­cent years. But the two main ideas—rais­ing taxes or tap­ping into ex­ist­ing tax rev­enue—still face sig­nif­i­cant hur­dles.

Gov. Asa Hutchin­son, in­com­ing Se­nate Pres­i­dent Jim Hen­dren and House Speaker Matthew Shep­herd called high­way fund­ing one of the top pri­or­i­ties when law­mak­ers con­vene on Mon­day for this year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion. So far, no plan has emerged yet on how to close the fund­ing gap for roads.

“That’s prob­a­bly the big­gest chal­lenge we have right now… be­cause there’s not a plan right now,” Hutchin­son said last week.

Arkansas of­fi­cials say the state high­way sys­tem needs $478 mil­lion in ad­di­tional fund­ing a year just to meet its current main­te­nance and im­prove­ment needs.

Re­cent ef­forts to raise more money for Arkansas high­ways have stalled. Law­mak­ers in 2017 re­jected a pro­posal to put a 20-year bond is­sue on the ballot and po­ten­tially raise $200 mil­lion an­nu­ally for the state’s high­ways. The mea­sure failed when some Repub­li­can law­mak­ers op­posed an ac­com­pa­ny­ing

“Un­less there are new rev­enue sources, we’re at our limit as to what can be taken out of gen­eral rev­enue for high­ways.”

—Gov. Asa Hutchin­son

bill to raise taxes on gas and diesel to pay for the bonds. The state High­way Com­mis­sion last year dropped an ef­fort to try and put its own high­way fund­ing plan on the 2018 ballot.

Hutchin­son said he wants to give law­mak­ers some time to come up with a so­lu­tion, but said he’s gen­er­ally op­posed to di­vert­ing ad­di­tional ex­ist­ing tax rev­enue to­ward roads. A high­way fund­ing plan en­acted in 2016 to raise an ad­di­tional $50 mil­lion for high­ways di­verted sur­plus funds and ex­ist­ing rev­enue.

Hutchin­son said di­vert­ing more rev­enue would strain the bud­get at the time he’s seek­ing fur­ther cuts in the in­come tax as well as an in­crease in teacher salaries.

“Un­less there are new rev­enue sources, we’re at our limit as to what can be taken out of gen­eral rev­enue for high­ways,” he said.

Shep­herd, how­ever, said he’d pre­fer law­mak­ers look first at ex­ist­ing rev­enue be­fore dis­cussing any tax or fee in­creases.

“If you’ve got a need at home and you’ve got cer­tain re­sources, prob­a­bly the first place you’d look is: What funds do I have avail­able? How am I spend­ing those funds right now?’ Are there op­por­tu­ni­ties to maybe move some of those funds to­ward the need I presently have?” Shep­herd said. “I think that same logic serves us well at the state level.”

Hen­dren said he prefers send­ing any high­way plan to vot­ers

“I would prob­a­bly tend to say that if I’m go­ing to ask folks to pay more for gaso­line or to con­tinue pay­ing a half cent sales tax in or­der for them to have new four lanes and repaving of roads, I think that’s a de­ci­sion that is prob­a­bly ap­pro­pri­ate to be passed out to the vot­ers,” said Hen­dren, who is also the gov­er­nor’s nephew.

Hutchin­son has said one op­tion could in­clude ex­tend­ing the half­cent sales tax vot­ers ap­proved in 2012 for high­ways. That tax ex­pires in 2023. He said he’d pre­fer send­ing any high­way fund­ing plan to vot­ers.

“I be­lieve (vot­ers) would sup­port that, but it has to be the right mix­ture and it has to be a clear plan,” Hutchin­son said.

Law­mak­ers say they’re look­ing at other ideas for rais­ing ad­di­tional money. Repub­li­can Sen. Bill Sam­ple said he’s work­ing on leg­is­la­tion that would in­dex the current mo­tor fuel tax with in­fla­tion costs and im­pos­ing a special regis­tra­tion fee on elec­tric and hy­brid ve­hi­cles.

Demo­cratic Sen. Keith In­gram, the Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader, said he be­lieves any plan is go­ing to re­quire a mix of fund­ing sources.

“I just find it hard to be­lieve we’re go­ing to be so self­ish as to not in­vest the nec­es­sary dol­lars for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. The prob­lem gets worse ev­ery day,” In­gram said.

Repub­li­can Rep. Dan Dou­glas, who spear­headed the un­suc­cess­ful high­way fund­ing plan two years ago, said he call for a hy­brid ap­proach that in­cludes ex­ist­ing rev­enue and a tax in­crease if an­other pro­posal doesn’t emerge.

“Ev­ery­body knows we need it. No­body wants to pay for it,” Dou­glas said.

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