Council Pushes Passage of Sales Tax (Again)

Council Pushes Passage of Sales Tax (Again)
The Connecting Arkansas Program, approved by Arkansas voters in 2012, has funded 36 projects across 19 corridors across the state. (ArDOT)

Keeping northwest Arkansas’ infrastructure projects funded is crucial to the area’s continued growth.

That was the familiar refrain heard at the Northwest Arkansas Council’s annual meeting Wednesday. The council, a nonprofit coalition of businesses, community and academic organizations, made the same sales pitch, in person, at the quarterly meeting in January at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The annual meeting, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was held virtually and was hosted by presiding Co-chairman Todd Simmons, the CEO of Simmons Foods in Siloam Springs. After Council CEO and President Nelson Peacock was introduced, he showed a short video calling for the passage of Issue 1 in the November elections.

Issue 1 is the proposed constitutional amendment to make a half-cent sales tax permanent. The sales tax was originally passed by voters in 2012 for 10 years, expiring in 2023. The tax revenue is dedicated to the state’s highway fund.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said the sales tax generates about $200 million for the state and another $88 million for cities and counties. Seventy percent of the revenue goes to the Arkansas Department of Transportation, 15% to the cities of the state and 15% to counties, and the video’s voiceover said the tax supports 3,600 jobs in Arkansas.

Hutchinson appeared on the video, urging viewers to “Vote for Roads, Vote for Issue 1,” the campaign’s slogan.

“A vote for Issue 1 means better roads and a stronger economy and a safer northwest Arkansas without raising taxes,” Hutchinson said. “Issue 1 will benefit every resident and every business that calls northwest Arkansas home.”

Technically, the passage of Issue 1 wouldn’t raise taxes since the tax is already in place. Critics of the proposal say it is weighted against lower-income Arkansans, who pay a higher percentage of their money in sales taxes than richer folks.

The council has been a fervent supporter of infrastructure projects since its founding in 1990. It was a driver behind the four-lane extension of U.S. Highway 412 from Springdale into Siloam Springs and the creation and construction of what is now Northwest Arkansas National Airport.

“We talked about Issue 1 back in our winter meeting, and because it is so important we felt we needed to bring it up again,” Peacock said. “It is hard to overstate the importance of getting Issue 1 passed for us. As you all know we are growing rapidly, one of the fast est-growing regions in the country. We need our infrastructure to keep pace, and Issue 1 is the key to getting that done. Infrastructure has been a key priority for the council since its inception.”

The original 10-year sales tax passed in 2012 with 58% of the vote. Peacock, who joined the council in 2017, displayed a graphic showing that 68 of the state’ 75 counties had approved the measure.

It passed in Washington County with 58% of the vote and in Benton County with 57%.

The unknown is how voters will respond to the tightening pandemic-influenced economic times and to the idea that the tax would be permanent. The council and its partners in the campaign — which include the Arkansas Trucking Association and the state’s Chamber of Commerce — aren’t taking any chances.

“That vote and that work have paid off significantly for northwest Arkansas,” said Peacock, mentioning the work being done on Interstate 49 and the Bella Vista Bypass. “We have done some major projects with that funding. All of those projects were incredible big wins for us.”

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring urged passage of the amendment on the video just as he did in January in person. He said he, like many people, is frustrated by the congestion on northwest Arkansas roads, which is why he said road work is so important.

“It is a huge component of our future progress and prosperity,” Moehring said. “It is a huge economic driver. All of these things go hand in hand. Additional infrastructure leads to additional growth and prosperity, which leads to additional infrastructure needs, and if we are not able to fund our infrastructure, then that is going to hurt our economy going forward.”