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Highway Bond Issue Could Return in 2007

Wed January 04, 2006 - Southeast Edition
CEG



LITTLE ROCK (AP) A highway bond proposal that Gov. Mike Huckabee declared dead may find new life in the 2007 legislative session, a state Senate leader says.

Huckabee accepted defeat on a pair of bond issues he touted for highway and higher education improvements. He blamed the loss on voter confusion between the two measures and a lack of turnout by supporters.

Huckabee said he had not ruled out pursuing the higher education bonds again before his term ends next year, but said he wouldn’t raise the highway-bonds matter again with voters over the next 13 months.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Argue predicted that legislators would refer another highway bond package to voters for the November 2008 ballot.

Argue, D-Little Rock, said legislators would likely prefer to model a bond proposal on the $575 million one-time-only road repair package that voters approved in 1999. Unlike the recent bond proposal, the 1999 bonds did not give highway commissioners authority to take on near-perpetual debt.

“I would suspect the Legislature would be amenable to referring the question again, but crafting it like it was in ’99,” Argue said. “The ’99 program was by and large popular across the state.”

Huckabee also accepted defeat on the higher education plan, saying in a conference call that it would be impossible to find the votes necessary to salvage the $250 million plan, which Associated Press figures showed lost by 596 votes.

“The spread is such that I don’t think, statistically, it would make any difference” to have votes counted again, Huckabee said. “I don’t think a recount would have any statistical likelihood of reversing the results. The best thing is to accept what the vote is.”

The difference on the higher-education plan worked out to be less than a half-vote per precinct, but on Huckabee’s attempt to give the state Highway Commission permission to borrow up to $575 million to fund interstate highway repairs, the result was far worse.

Complete but unofficial returns showed that the vote on the highway bond issue was 68,714 against (60 percent) and 45,053 (40 percent) in favor. On the higher education bonds, the vote was 57,453 against (50.26 percent) and 56,857 in favor (49.74 percent).

Under the highways proposal, the state Highway Commission would have had permission to issue bonds at any time for interstate road repair, as long as the total amount of debt at one time didn’t exceed $575 million.

Votes favoring the highway bonds proposal were a majority in only 12 of the state’s 75 counties; in 1999, it led in all counties. The $250 million higher education bonds package led in 28 counties.

The higher education proposal would have allowed the state to restructure $100 million in higher education debt authorized in the 1980s and issue $150 million in new debt for infrastructure and technology projects at state colleges and universities.

Huckabee said he was surprised that the higher education plan fared well in the impoverished Delta region while failing in northwestern Arkansas, home of the University of Arkansas’ main campus.

“(The Delta’s support) does tell me that people who are really hungry and hurting understand there have to be some creative efforts made to pull the economy out of the pits,” Huckabee said.

Janine Parry, an associate professor of political science at the Fayetteville campus, said the election’s timing — in the middle of exams and right before the holidays — hurt both measures in northwestern Arkansas.

“The university community is engrossed in the end of the semester right now,” Parry said. “Your natural constituency for the education measure and probably for the roads measure was otherwise engaged.”

Both measures also found support in southwest Arkansas counties such as Little River, Miller and Lafayette.

Rep. Ken Cowling, whose district includes Little River and Miller counties, said he thinks the support stemmed from the public’s interest in the construction of Interstate 49 in the area.

“You’re naturally going to attract interest here in any road infrastructure issue because of that,” said Cowling, D-Foreman. “Even though the bond issue was for repair of existing roads, they probably thought it would help in new areas of 49.”

In the Delta, support for the highway measure stemmed from a fear that, without the bonds, future improvements for interstates would take away from rural roads, said Rep. Randy Rankin, D-Eudora.

The impoverished area’s struggle with educational issues probably fueled support for the higher improvements in counties like Desha and Chicot, Rankin said.

“Education in my area is a real problem,” Rankin said. “Everybody wants good education, but we don’t seem to be able to afford it in our area.”

Huckabee said the bond supporters didn’t aggressively turn out the vote for the measure, and was also hurt by the opposition’s campaign, which was backed by truckers who had endorsed the 1999 road plan.

“We made some assumptions that people would vote for better highways and better colleges,” Huckabee said. “We underestimated the negative power of the [Arkansas] Trucking Association’s message.”

Huckabee said he believed “without a doubt” that the opposition campaign against the highway bonds ultimately killed the higher education issue.

“I think it’s difficult to separate those issues,” Huckabee said. “The message going in is there are no new taxes. There was not any distinction in the message that said you’re going to lose your right to vote.”

Trucking association president Lane Kidd, whose group worked against the highway measure, said that truckers shouldn’t be blamed for the tough time the higher education bonds had. “Maybe they’ll point fingers, but we did everything we could to separate the two questions,” he said.

Turnout was light for the special election — approximately 7 percent of the state’s 1.7 million registered voters cast ballots. In 1999, the road plan turned out 10 percent of those registered to vote.