The Arkansas Highway Commission voted 5-0 on June 7 to develop a funding proposal to put in front of voters in the 2018 general election.
Before anyone gets too optimistic, it’s important to note that the vote really didn’t do much of anything — at least not any concrete, solve-the-huge-highway-funding-deficit-the-state-currently-faces kind of way. Of course, I don’t want to be pessimistic, either, because there is always a chance enlightened minds and entrenched interests can come up with something that both solves the funding problem and can be passed by voters. The same voters who in 2012 approved a half-percent sales tax increase that went directly to the state’s highway fund. Also, the same voters who voted for the current president by a 60.5 percent majority while also approving medical marijuana by 53 percent.
So, who the heck knows.
At stake is something important. Scott Bennett, the director of the state’s Highway & Transportation Department, said the state needs to double its current annual funding of $400 million to properly take care of its transportation needs.
When I interviewed Bennett for a story in February, he summed up the funding problem in a neat, tidy sentence: “There’s only two ways to do it: You either raise taxes and fees or you reallocate the existing capital you have coming in.”
The state Legislature did neither during the last session. Enough legislators didn’t want to raise the fuel/diesel tax and enough legislators didn’t want to transfer general funds to transportation, so neither option was achieved.
“I can tell you I don’t think any of the legislators are opposed to funding roads,” said commission member Philip Taldo of Springdale. “It’s just a political decision, and they just feel like that’s not what their constituents want them to do.”
So now the Highway Commission wants a ballot proposal put directly in front of voters. The fine print to that is, among other things, what kind of ballot proposal, what will the ballot proposal say and can a ballot proposal even get done in time to get on the ballot?
Then, of course, the fine voters of Arkansas still have to pass the durn thing.
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said the news reports of the commission’s vote were a bit “overstated” because there is still a lot of work to be done — or not done — to get any kind of approvable solution on the ballot.
“The decision was to continue to talk about it,” Newton said. “There was no decision that we have an agreed-upon plan or that there will be a ballot initiative. There is still a lot of opportunities or outs that would not lead to a ballot initiative being launched. I think it is a little bit misleading with all the coverage saying the commission voted unanimously to pursue an initiative. Well, maybe.”
The sooner something is done the better, of course. Arkansas’ infrastructure is in bad shape, and it’s a lot cheaper to maintain and renovate roads and bridges than it is to replace something irreparably broken.
Delaying the solution makes the problem bigger and the solution more painful.
Raising the fuel/diesel tax by 1 cent would raise $14 million, a far cry from the $400 million needed. Does anyone really want to raise the tax by 28-plus cents to get to $400 million? I doubt it.
Just as I assume no one wants to raid the general fund for the entire $400 million. The half-percent sales tax runs out in a few years. Does anyone want to try for a higher tax to cover the entire bill?
Now the logical non-politician in me believes it is readily apparent that a mixture of funding sources needs to be tapped. I also agree with some NEVER TAXES! people who think the government should do some efficiency streamlining to save some money here and there.
“Since we didn’t get it done, we are in kind of a critical position as far as maintaining our roads,” Taldo said. “The worse they get, the price just compounds. Instead of costing twice as much, it costs five times as much if you let it get to a really bad situation.
“Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. We can always use more money somewhere.”