- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, May 17, 2016

Highway funding: Tapping Arkansas’ surplus is not a long-term solution

This week, Arkansas lawmakers will meet in special session to figure out how to fund needed highway improvements in the state.

It looks to be a contentious session.

Four Republican state senators - including Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana - have floated the idea that an increase on gasoline and diesel fuel taxes is the way to go.

They want an increase of 5 cents a gallon with an additional 1 cent increase each of the next three years. The tax hikes are expected to bring an additional $100 million a year, eventually rising to $160 million a year. The tax increases would expire in 2021, but it’s possible the voters would be allowed to decide if they should remain.

They have the support of the Arkansas Trucking Association. The ATA says that those who use the roads should pay and that current highway conditions put truckers at risk.

It might be hard to get a tax increase passed, though. Some other legislators have said any tax increase would have to be offset by tax cuts. That would make them revenue neutral, which kind of defeats the purpose. And the governor is against any tax increase.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson thinks it would be better to use the state’s surplus funds to pay for highway repairs and upgrades.

“Arkansans are currently seeing some financial relief at the pump, and the governor has no desire to take that away. Furthermore, in the current climate, it’s hard to believe any highway plan that includes a tax increase will attract a consensus among legislators,” the governor’s office said in a prepared statement.

Hutchinson’s plan calls for shifting funds and using the state surplus to increase the federal government’s matching funds contribution this fall.

All well and good. But what happens after that? The answer is the state scrambles to find the money once again. How long can we tap the surplus until it runs out?

No one likes higher taxes, but Hickey and his three fellow lawmakers have a plan that goes beyond the immediate need. The governor’s plan is short-term and short-sighted. Arkansas’ gasoline and diesel taxes have remained the same since 1994. That means highway revenue has been steady while costs of operating and maintaining those roads has gone up. Arkansas is fortunate to have a surplus - many states wish they could say the same. But the surplus cannot be the answer to long-term problems because soon there would be no surplus. Revenue must increase.

At the very least perhaps the governor and the Legislature could compromise with a smaller tax increase and a smaller bite from the surplus. But the fact is you cannot expect to cover today’s expenses with yesterday’s revenue for long before you end up in a big fiscal pothole.


The Banner-News, May 13, 2016

The mayor’s vision for Magnolia

Mayor Parnell Vann is proposing what he calls a “lofty” project for the City of Magnolia, one that is sure to garner much discussion in the coming weeks and months.

Inspired by what he has seen in other communities roughly this size, Vann has told the City Council he would like to spearhead the development of a new baseball park and/or aquatic complex in Magnolia. Indicating that he thinks the town “needs both,” Vann said he would bring facts, figures and other information before the Council to help further the idea.

Based on the idea that if “you build it, they will come,” Vann has argued that Magnolia needs something keep families with young children here. We think that is a sound point, one that is hard to argue. Magnolia does need a reason for families to stay - to spend their dollars locally, contribute to the tax base and keep their children in our school district.

This is, of course, a quality of life issue, but it’s all part of a larger picture. Families leave an area because jobs are available elsewhere. Or they leave because there is simply nothing to do. Magnolia needs to address these issues by doing, as Vann has said, “something.”

We’re not saying there is necessarily “nothing to do” in Magnolia. We have a thriving arts scene, a growing university, plenty of sports teams, a Blossom Festival, a rodeo, a local state park, a lake, and a fairly healthy downtown. Oh, and alcohol is now legal. However, we don’t have a movie theater, or a bowling alley, or a plethora of eating places. We’re all pretty much in agreement on this, are we not?

Vann’s proposal is at least partly an answer to these issues. No, having a better place to swim won’t keep families in Magnolia or attract more families to our town, but it’s not just a matter of having a better place to swim. Vann is talking about bringing major, statewide swim meets to Magnolia, and baseball tournaments, and keeping these events going, more or less, year-round.

From what he tells the Council, communities like Batesville, that have these venues, are seeing a positive impact on their tax base, and that is something we need to be looking at as well.

A bigger tax base and venues that attract thousands of people could potentially bring the kinds of restaurant chains and hotels that we’d like to see. If Batesville can do it, Vann has said, Magnolia should be able to. There is almost no difference in population.

We know people are concerned that such a project might raise taxes. Vann has stated that there is a way to pay for the city’s part of the complexes without raising sales tax or property millage. “We have a sales and use tax bond out there that we can refinance,” he told the Banner-News, adding that he will continue to look for ways for the complexes to essentially pay for themselves.

Where to place these parks is another area of discussion. Vann wants to keep these complexes as close to the middle of town as possible in order to keep people spending money with local merchants. “We want to place it where it brings you into town or keeps you close to town.”

Lots of details remain, and as Vann has indicated, this is a community-outreach proposal - large numbers of people will have to get on board with their support in order for any of this to become a reality. Will people do it? Will Magnolia move forward with new baseball parks and swimming areas? Vann has said he will continue to gather and provide information, and we strongly encourage him to do so.


Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 17, 2016

The luxury of 911

Is there such a thing as too much public safety?

The folks responsible for the money to maintain 911/public safety call centers around the state might say yes, at least with regard to the number of those centers. From its start in the 1980s, the state’s 911 system has left many of the decisions about the number and placement of call centers, where dispatchers receive calls and communicate with public safety agencies, in the hands of local officials. That’s how a state with 75 counties today has 126 call centers.

In Benton and Washington counties alone, there are seven call centers. Each one receives 911 calls based on where the calls originate.

Here’s the problem: With technology advancing rapidly and the switch by callers to mobile devices and text messaging, the money raised to keep these centers going is quickly becoming inadequate to keeping up.

Lawmakers recently asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson to include a moratorium on any new call centers in his call for this week’s special session primarily for highway funding. Hutchinson’s call emerged Monday without the 911 issue among the session’s topics.

With so many call centers, state officials have said dispatcher training has suffered, technological advancements cannot be fully implemented and funding is approaching the day it will come up short.

Even if it didn’t make the special session, this issue won’t fade. While we respect local decision-making, a system that relies on state-level funding must be guided by common-sense efficiency. If funding 126 call centers means a shortage of funding to train dispatchers and make technical improvements, one has to ask: Does 126 make sense?

Local officials want to protect their turf and keep dispatchers “in-house.” That’s a luxury, and now the state can’t afford it. Wouldn’t it make sense to fund one call center per county? Perhaps if smaller subdivisions want to maintain their own dispatch centers, they should pay for that luxury.

The limited resources available ought to be invested in a robust 911 call system’s technology, personnel and training, not in paying homage to turf protection. When an emergency arises, 911 callers want efficiency and quick responses. Where the call goes isn’t as important as how well trained the person answering it is and how effectively the communication systems work.

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