A constitutional amendment to make a half-cent sales tax permanent goes before Arkansas voters on Nov. 3.
Those in favor of the amendment, which would dedicate the tax revenue to the state highway fund, are already out beating the bushes to drum up support. The original tax was passed in 2012 but is set to expire in 2023 — hence, Issue 1 is on the ballot.
In January, the tax proposal was a main agenda item at the Northwest Arkansas Council’s winter meeting at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was overshadowed at the time by museum founder Alice Walton announcing she would open the World Health Institute in Bentonville.
Northwest Arkansas Council President Nelson Peacock said the amendment’s passage is important to northwest Arkansas because of the population projection of 700,000 people by the year 2030. Already, Peacock said, 79,000 vehicles commute daily on Interstate 49 and 14,000 vehicles commute daily on state Highway 112.
“You’re going to hear a lot about this from us over the next few months,” Peacock said.
The council brought County Judges Joseph Wood (Washington County) and Barry Moehring (Benton County) to present their counties’ case for the sales tax passage. Wood even had a motto. “The road to success starts with our roads and bridges,” said Wood, pointing out that the meeting’s attendees had driven over roads and bridges funded and maintained by the counties to reach Crystal Bridges.
Washington County is projected to receive $1.75 million from the sales tax proceeds in 2020, Wood said. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said the sales tax would provide slightly more than $200 million to the state and $88 million for counties and cities.
Wood said good roads and bridges allow students to travel to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and work at local companies such as Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale.
“The $43 million that county judges will see across the state is a big shot in the arm for a lot of projects and roads and bridges,” Wood said. “Our roads and our bridges are how all of that happens. We are really looking forward to seeing this continue.”
Wood said if the sales tax doesn’t pass, the county will still do work on its roads and bridges but other projects would suffer from a siphoning off of funding. Moehring said Benton County had repaired its landmark War Eagle Bridge with money supplied by the tax.
Tax revenue represented about 15% of the county’s $15.3 million road department budget, Moehring said. Moehring said Benton County has more than 1,500 miles of roads, the most of any county in the state.
The county had 15 structurally deficient bridges a few years ago but has cut that number down four, and those bridges are expected to be upgraded in the next few years.
“If we didn’t continue work on bridges like that we would have a public safety issue,” Moehring said. “Don’t kid yourself: This half-cent sales tax continuation is about transportation, and ultimately it is going to be about public safety in making sure people can move safely across rural bridges.”
The Arkansas Department of Transportation has also gotten into the act, although not as a proponent since its employees cannot actively campaign. Interim ArDOT spokesman Randy Ort said the department scheduled 12 public information meetings, four of which have been held, to let the public hear what the passage (or failure) of the amendment would mean to the state.
The meetings are moderated by ArDOT Director Scott Bennett, and the first four have been attended by some 300 people. While ArDOT officials can’t campaign, it is clear that the amendment’s passage is a fervent hope.
“We can’t campaign [but] by the same token it is our responsibility to provide information to the electorate so they can make an informed decision,” Ort said. “Here is what happens if you vote yes and it passes; here is what happens if you vote no and it fails.”