Arkansas’ Governor Shelves $1B Highway Program

Sat April 16, 2005 - West Edition
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LITTLE ROCK (AP) Saying federal highway funding and the state Legislature’s focus on education would make passage difficult, Gov. Mike Huckabee has abandoned his $1.3-billion highway bond program and plans to try again later in a special session.

Huckabee named uncertainty about how the state will fare with the federal highway bill and the state Legislature’s focus on funding court-ordered repairs to public school buildings as reasons for the delay.

The governor said those issues and the need to address other pressing budget needs would make it difficult to force a highway program through this session.

Legislative leaders also have expressed reservations about the highway plan because it would divert money from the state’s general treasury to pay for road construction.

“To push for a bill of this magnitude would require either an unusual amount of epiphany on a majority of legislators … or a level of force that I’m not sure any of us have,” Huckabee acknowledged at a news conference.

Highway officials have used fuel tax revenue to pay for highway improvements for more than 50 years. The highway bill would for the first time commit general revenues to building highways, diverting approximately $193 million annually, generated by the sale of new vehicles, to road construction.

Seventy percent, or about $149 million a year, would go to finance a high bond issue. Cities and counties each would get 15 percent of the rest, or approximately $22 million apiece.

The main focus of the regular session that began Jan. 10 has been responding to a state Supreme Court order to bring public school buildings and equipment around the state up to a constitutional standard.

The House and Senate have passed legislation setting up a framework for a 10-year construction plan in recent days, but the governor’s announcement came just hours after the House Education Committee began hearings on a formula for distributing state aid to school districts to help pay for repairs that could cost nearly $2 billion over a decade.

Also, lawmakers have yet to pass budgets for the major state agencies or to set priorities for state spending for the next two years.

“If we can get through this session, get our main business done, work with Senate and House leaders and perhaps develop a program that has the overwhelming support of House and Senate members, it’s likely we could come back in a special session somewhere between now and a year from now and have a [highway] program that we can all agree to,” the governor said.

The House Public Transportation Committee endorsed the highway plan, but Prissy Hickerson of Texarkana, chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, said she sensed reservations, even among some legislative supporters.

Hickerson said she believed the bill has enough support to pass the House, but that its fate in the Senate was unsure. The bill was scheduled to be heard in the House, but the debate was postponed at the request of Rep. Johnnie Bolin, D-Crossett.

Bolin said that there needs to be more discussion among legislators about making highways a priority within the state’s general budget, along with public education and other state needs, to tie road-building to a growing revenue source rather than the flat or declining proceeds from fuel taxes.

“We must move beyond the mind set of education versus highways. We must find ways to adequately address both,” Bolin said.

Sen. Steve Higginbothom, D-Marianna, the Senate sponsor, said the state could not afford to wait another two years to pass a highway program because rising costs would make such a program more expensive.