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Highway Bond Proposal Draws More Opposition

Wed December 07, 2005 - Southeast Edition
CEG



LITTLE ROCK (AP) A highway bond ballot item backed by Arkansas’ Republican governor and state GOP chairman has caused some in-party disagreements with some state Republicans asking voters to reject it on Dec. 13.

The issue is one of two proposals voters will decide in the special election. The other asks voters to approve a bond issue to generate more revenue for colleges and universities. Both measures are supported by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, the state GOP chairman.

But Randy Minton of Ward, a former state legislator, said a group called the Arkansas Republican Assembly doesn’t like a provision of the highway-bond proposal that would let the state Highway Commission issue new bonds when some of the old ones are paid off, up to $575 million, without getting voter approval.

“From a fiscal conservative standpoint, we just can’t see putting ourselves, our children and our future generations into perpetual debt,” Minton said.

The Arkansas Trucking Association and the Arkansas chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union also have come out against the highway measure.

Huckabee Spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, said the highway bond measure has bipartisan support.

“The governor believes Arkansans, regardless of party, will be in favor of having safer, more comfortable interstates, and this bond proposal is much better than going back to the days when roads were an embarrassment and hazardous to our citizens,” she said. “Continuing progress with no new taxes saves money and lives, and nothing is more conservative than that.”

She said the Arkansas Republican Assembly was unknown to anyone in the governor’s office.

“Nobody around here is familiar with that group,” she said.

Patrick Briney of Fayetteville, president of the assembly, said the group has chapters in six counties. Among board members it lists on the assembly’s Web site are Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith, a former legislator who is running for attorney general.

Briney said members don’t oppose issuing bonds for highway work, but don’t want to give the Highway Commission the authority to issue more.

Supporters said many state agencies already have authority to issue bonds without voter approval, and they note that the maximum allowed in the bond proposal is a fraction of the highway commission’s budget. They said the bond authority will expedite highway repairs and upgrades.

Referred Question No. 1 would authorize the extension of the $575-million program that voters approved in 1999, which has financed improvements on more than 380 mi. of once-crumbling interstate highways in the state.

Referred Question No. 2 would allow the Arkansas Department of Higher Education to sell up to $250 million in bonds for capital construction projects on state college and university campuses around the state. The Trucking Association endorses that bond measure; the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union does not.

Trustees Support Question No. 2

In a move to distance themselves from a highway bond spending ballot item, University of Arkansas (UA) trustees have voted to support a $250-million higher education bond item but not its road construction counterpart.

Even though UA System President B. Alan Sugg asked the board to endorse both measures, trustees voted down the highway item said they are uncomfortable with packaging their support for both.

Specifically, trustees said they don’t want the higher education money to be considered along with the highway item.

“You are endorsing a hornets nest of controversy when you get into the highway bonds,” Hot Springs Trustee John Ed Anthony said. “I question whether tying our endorsement for the education to the highway bonds will taint it somewhat.”

Some trustees worried that chances at passing the higher education bonds would suffer if they showed support for the controversial highway bonds.

“It’s absolutely critical to get that higher-education bond issue passed,” Anthony said. “But for us to endorse both … I think could damage or hurt our endorsement of the higher education bonds.”

Sugg said he originally wanted both measures to receive trustee support because, “The governor and the leadership felt that it would be good for both highways and the universities and colleges to go down this road together.”