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Referendum Would Provide Millions for Road Maintenance

Wed November 09, 2005 - Southeast Edition
CEG



LITTLE ROCK (AP) In an effort to convince voters to approve bond issues aimed at raising money for higher education and highways, Gov. Mike Huckabee Oct. 25 launched a promotional campaign touting a special election Dec. 13.

The ballot issues would raise hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain interstate highways and to fund construction and technology projects at state universities. Huckabee said no new taxes are involved; the Arkansas constitution requires voter approval.

Huckabee said high-quality interstate highways are needed for the state’s economic welfare, even though they make up just a small portion of the roads in the state.

“If you clog the arteries, it doesn’t matter how healthy your capillaries are, you’re going to die,” he said.

Stacy DeJarnette, director of the newly created Committee to Lead Education and Roads said no taxpayer dollars will be used to pay for advertising.

As of Oct. 25, no other campaign organization for or against the initiative had filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. “We really don’t anticipate there being organized opposition,” Huckabee said.

Legislators this year authorized spending additional dollars on highways and higher education and the Dec. 13 election is intended to raise funding for the areas.

Voters will see two questions on the ballot.

The first question would indefinitely lengthen the state Highway Department’s authority to issue bonds for interstate highway repairs.

A 1999 referendum gave the state highway commission the authority to issue up to $575 million in bonds to repair damaged sections of the state’s interstate highways, said Randy Ort, spokesman of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.

The state issued a total of $575 million in bonds in 2000, 2001 and 2002, he said.

The money was used to repair 355 mi. of the 655 mi. of interstate highway in Arkansas, Ort said.

The state is paying off the debt with federal money and with revenues from a 4-cent diesel fuel tax increase passed in 1999.

If voters approve the initiative on Dec. 13, the state could borrow more money on the bond market as soon as it paid off some of the old bonds. But the total amount of debt outstanding at one time couldn’t be more than $575 million.

Voters shouldn’t expect new interstate highways or road-widening projects from the Dec. 13 vote, Ort said. “This money can only used to rehabilitate or reconstruct what is there,” he said.

Huckabee said he hoped for support even in counties where there are no interstate highways. He said there could be times when the highway commission would be forced at some point to take money that currently goes to rural areas and use it to to patch the interstate, he said.

The second issue would allow the state to issue bonds to support a range of technology improvements and building renovations at the state’s four-year and two-year colleges. A series of bond transactions would bring $150 million in new money to the state’s institutions of higher learning, said Mac Dodson, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.

The state currently devotes approximately $24 million a year to paying off the old university debt. The proposal would allow the $24 million to go toward paying off new debt.

The borrowed money would go toward two major areas, said Linda Beene, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

Approximately $140.6 million would go for a range of building, renovation, technology and other projects at colleges and universities.

Approximately $9.4 million would go toward creation of a high-speed fiberoptic network that would link Arkansas universities to colleagues at other universities around the world. The network, known as National LambdaRail, allows researchers to share massive amounts of information, Beene said.