Login

Brenda Blagg: A rough road to funding

Highway Commission considers direct appeal to voters

State voters may yet get a chance to vote on a new proposal to fund highways.

The Arkansas Highway Commission is looking at the possibility of taking an initiated act to the 2018 general election ballot.

You may recall the Arkansas Legislature earlier this year spurned a 20-year bond issue to fund a major maintenance program.

Backers of the measure, led by the Highway Commission, had hoped the Legislature would refer the bond issue to the ballot. But the proposal failed miserably in the Arkansas House, where only 39 of the 100 House members supported it.

It was enough of a throttling that highway backers didn't pursue that or a companion bill that would have levied a sales tax on motor fuels contingent upon voter approval of the bond issue.

The tax was expected to generate money to pay off the bonds, allowing $200 million a year to be dedicated to highways and assuring the state would have the necessary state match to qualify for its allotment of federal dollars each year.

Word back then was that some lawmakers were scared off the package by threats that opposing forces would get them beat in the next election, even if they only voted to refer the issue to state votes.

There was already an anti-tax disposition among lawmakers, so the referral route to the ballot just slammed shut.

That hasn't stopped highway commissioners and others from looking for more money for highways. And they're still counting on state voters to provide it. They'll just have to bypass the Legislature to get the question to voters.

The plan now is to mount a petition drive and gather signatures to get an initiated act on the 2018 ballot.

The Arkansas Highway Commission met a couple of weeks back and began looking at possible ballot questions. They didn't settle on anything specific, although they do seem determined to take the initiative route.

State Highway Director Scott Bennett suggested a plan that would redirect revenue from a portion of the statewide sales tax on new and used vehicles and other road-related purchases to highways.

There's more to his plan but it would, by 2024, net $342 million annually for state highways.

The proposal would also provide money for county roads and city streets, using that 70-15-15 formula that has been applied for decades now. However the money might come, that formula assures that the state's cities and counties get 15 percent of new revenue while the highway department retains 70 percent.

Don't get too hung up on this proposal. It could change. What the commissioners are looking for is a proposal that will generate the funds the state needs in a way that voters will accept.

Bennett, noting the failure of some past efforts when the Highway Commission hasn't "led the charge on everything," urged leadership from the commission.

"I think we need to be a lot more involved on the front end," he advised.

Craig Douglass, executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation, chimed in that the foundation is putting together a plan for getting an initiated act to the ballot.

Their focus, he said, is the process, not the content.

"That's up to you all," he told commissioners.

What he then described is the same sort of process followed in the past for highway-related votes.

"Once the department and commission decide on what that looks like, we talk to cities, counties, chambers of commerce, all of the stakeholders," Douglass said.

Notably, that appeal is directed to anyone who might help fund the campaign, including people in the road construction industry and others who would benefit from better highways.

The initiative process is daunting and can be expensive.

Once the backers figure out what they want on the ballot, they'll need to lock down a popular name, ballot title and text and get the attorney general's blessing before they can begin gathering signatures.

When they circulate those petitions, they must be careful to get the signatures of qualified electors so that they can reach the required number to submit to the secretary of state for verification.

These steps involve lawyers and perhaps paid signature gatherers.

The Legislature could have saved the highway supporters all that effort, if it had been willing to refer a highway issue to voters.

But the lawmakers balked and the only way the commission can get a vote is through the initiative.

It isn't as simple as recasting what failed in the Legislature as an initiated act.

The commission must somehow find a funding solution that will meet the state's need and appeal to voters, most of whom are reluctant to have their pocketbooks tapped for any tax.

That's enough of a challenge.

But, what the commissioners propose must also motivate the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation and the other stakeholder groups to put their time, energy and money into the effort.

Commentary on 05/17/2017

Log in to comment