Most of those knowledgeable on the topic would agree that Arkansas has a highway funding problem. Or, at a minimum, it's an "issue." Our roads are in need of repair and expansion, but the money necessary to meet these needs isn't there. Decisions made in the coming months by elected officials, and possibly the voters, will shape the future of our transportation infrastructure for years to come.
In 2016, Gov. Asa Hutchinson called two special sessions of the Legislature, one of which was primarily designed to address highway funding. Due to a decline in revenues dedicated to highways, the state was facing a shortfall in funds required to obtain federal matching money for highway construction and maintenance. Unless some additional funding was located, Arkansas risked losing hundreds of millions in federal highway funds.
This is an Opinion
During the special session, lawmakers passed the "Arkansas Highway Improvement Plan of 2016." The legislation directs about $50 million per year from general revenue and surplus dollars to highway funding in order to ensure the receipt of about $200 million annually in federal funding.
The problem is, however, that the funding plan adopted in 2016 expires after five years and legislators failed to adopt a longer-term plan in the 2017 regular session. There was an effort, spearheaded by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, to refer a measure to the voters allowing them to decide whether to create additional revenue for highway needs. The Douglas measure, had it been referred to and approved by voters, would have increased the fuel tax to create more dollars for highways. But the legislation failed on the floor of the House.
Since the conclusion of the regular session, the Arkansas Highway Commission has discussed an effort to place a measure on the ballot through the initiative process. That is, draft an initiated act addressing highway funding and obtain the signatures necessary to have it appear on the ballot in November 2018. Such a process is difficult and expensive. As a result, it is far from certain that, if this route is pursued, it will be successful.
As with many issues, Arkansas isn't the only state grappling with this problem. As many as 28 states are considering methods for funding highways, with more than 150 pieces of legislation filed on the matter. There are no easy answers.
Infrastructure is critical to the health of our economy and our state. Raising taxes is unpopular in the current political climate but Arkansans have shown that they are willing to do it when it comes to our roads. As a result, I do believe that the voters will get the chance to make a decision, whether it be an initiated measure for 2018, or a legislative referral in either 2019 or 2020.
Erika Gee, a partner at the Wright Lindsey and Jennings law firm in Little Rock, represents clients in government relations, regulatory and compliance matters. Email her at EGee@WLJ.com.