Arkansas Highway Commission Aims for Bigger Roads Budget

Tue December 05, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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LITTLE ROCK (AP) When Arkansans pay sales taxes on auto-parts purchases or vehicle-repair services, the state highway system should get a piece of the action to help bridge the gap between $4 billion in anticipated revenue and $19 billion in needs over the next 10 years, highway officials said.

New Arkansas Highway Commission Chairman Jonathan Barnett, in his first act, signed a measure that passed the commission unanimously calling for the Legislature to dedicate sales tax paid on items related to roads. The money would be used to speed some projects and pay for state highways and local roads.

Barnett said he and other commissioners have not yet met with Governor-elect Mike Beebe, who has pledged to eliminate the state sales tax on food.

“We’d like to have a positive relationship with Governor-elect Beebe. Even though we haven’t had a chance to visit yet, we’re looking forward to having a positive discussion about highway needs, see what his agenda is and see what he’d like to do.”

Beebe has not said what his first steps will be. He enters with a projected $843 million surplus.

“He will take the recommendations of the Highway Commission under consideration as he makes his decisions involving the state budget,” Beebe spokesman Zac Wright said. “But at this point it’s premature to discuss it.”

The order signed by Barnett also would have the Legislature set aside road-construction money for the Arkansas Department of Economic Development. The agency often needs to offer improved roads as an enticement to industry.

State Rep. Johnnie Bolin, D-Crossett, is the outgoing chairman of the House Public Transportation Committee and is now working as the executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads-Transportation Council. Bolin said any highway spending package will have to have the support of the governor, though that is not always enough.

“Whoever the governor is adds a lot of clout to whether a package goes through,” Bolin said.

The last major highway plan that was approved by voters provided $575 million to rebuild much of the Arkansas interstate system as part of $1 billion in improvements. The Legislature enacted an increase in the tax on diesel fuel for the project.

Gov. Mike Huckabee backed that 1999 initiative. But Huckabee was also behind a measure last December that would have allowed the Highway Commission to continue issuing bonds for interstate highway improvement, as long as the bond did not grow beyond $575 million.

The measure failed at the ballot after the state trucking industry abandoned its support for the proposal and campaigned against it.

Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Dan Flowers said current revenues dedicated to roads is not enough to keep up with needs.

“We have been going around the state for some time talking about needs, the fact that we’re $15 billion short of all our needs,” Flowers said. “The fuel taxes and registration fees that we collect are just not going to get the job done if we want to make major improvements in the highway system.”

Flowers said he understands that the Legislature has to pay for education, prisons and Medicaid, in addition to funding roads and other concerns.

Arkansas Trucking Association President Lane Kidd said the group plans to meet with Beebe in December.

“There’s no question some needs exist around the state for highway improvements, but whether a new plan with higher taxes and fees is required is open to discussion,” Kidd said. “One has to differentiate between needs and wants.”

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