LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Highway Commission voted Wednesday to pursue a ballot measure to fund road improvements, months after lawmakers refused to push for the money.
Commission members said they’re counting on support for highways among voters despite resistance among lawmakers to raise taxes or divert money going toward other needs.
“I think it’s a great option for us, the only option we have, because our Legislature and government leaders are just so against raising the tax,” said Dick Trammel, the commission’s chairman. “I think the people will accept we need better roads and good highways in Arkansas.”
The commission didn’t endorse a specific plan or funding level, and will spend the coming months studying potential ballot measures.
The effort comes as lawmakers across the U.S. have approved new proposals to pay for transportation improvements, including tax hikes, vehicle fee increases and bond packages. President Donald Trump has also launched a push for a $1 trillion overhaul of the nation’s roads and bridges.
The highway plan that failed before the state House this year would have put a 20-year bond issue on the ballot and potentially raised $200 million annually for the state’s highways. The measure failed when some Republican lawmakers opposed an accompanying bill to raise taxes on gas and diesel to pay for the bonds.
Without the Legislature’s blessing, the commission will need signatures from thousands of registered voters to get the proposal on the ballot. Petitions for the measure must be submitted by July 13, 2018 to make the ballot that November. A change in state law would require nearly 68,000 signatures to get on the ballot, while a proposed constitutional amendment would need nearly 85,000.
Scott Bennett, director of the state Highway and Transportation Department, said an outside group or campaign would have to handle the fundraising and signature-gathering. Bennett said he hoped to have a decision from the commission by October on the funding proposal.
Bennett outlined several possible proposals, including some that combined a tax increase with plans to gradually divert auto-related tax revenue, such as car sales, to highways.
If the commission pursues a tax increase to fund roads, it is sure to face opposition from Americans for Prosperity, which has opposed past efforts to raise taxes for highways.
“It would be disappointing for the Highway Commission to advocate for higher taxes instead of first seeking efficiency and overall reform,” Teresa Oelke, senior vice president of state operations, said last week.
Diverting general revenue to highways, meanwhile, would likely draw opposition from advocates who say that would hamper an already limited budget and threaten other state services.
Republican Rep. Dan Douglas, who sponsored the highway plan that failed in the House, warned the panel that tapping into that revenue could be complicated by a legislative task force studying ways to further cut income taxes.
“You can’t do that and revenue transfer. You can’t do everything,” Douglas said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said he supported the commission’s plan to take a funding proposal to voters, issued a similar warning about tapping into general revenue.
“I have consistently advocated for an initiated petition so that voters can have their say on highways,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “However, I would urge caution with any plan that would divert money from general revenues as this would limit the state’s ability to reduce the high income tax rate and to adequately fund education and other essential services.”
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