- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway funding plan won initial approval from lawmakers Friday, while an attempt to limit his $50 million proposal to one year appeared dead.

The House voted 75-15 for Hutchinson’s proposal to tap into the state’s surplus, investment returns and other fund for roads, and a Senate panel quickly endorsed the measure. The Senate approved the competing one-year plan on an 18-10 vote, but the bill failed before a House panel

“At this point in this special session, I think it’s basically dead,” said Republican Rep. Dan Douglas after the competing measure failed before the House Rules Committee because no one on the panel recommended its passage. “It looks like the governor’s bill is the only bill in town.”

Both proposals were estimated to raise nearly $50 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, but the competing plan would have ended the funding after the first year. Hutchinson has said the money is needed so the state can receive $200 million in annual additional matching federal funds for highways.

“We would be remiss if we left here from this session without having a plan that goes at least five years, that assures us of the maximum amount of federal money,” Hutchinson told reporters. “And that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

Hutchinson’s bill has faced resistance from Democrats and some Republicans who complain it does little to address the state’s long-term highway funding needs. Supporters of the one-year plan say it would have forced the Legislature to come up with a solution at the 2017 regular session. Highway officials say they have $20.4 billion in needs over the next decade, but expect only $3.6 billion in state and federal funding.

“This is not about politics, but the safety of the people driving up and down our roads,” House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, a Democrat from Augusta, said on the House floor.

Hutchinson’s proposal advanced after the Senate voted to move the proposal from the Senate Transportation Committee, which had deadlocked Thursday on the highway plan, to the Revenue and Taxation Committee. Senate leaders said they believe there’s enough support to pass the proposal when it’s considered Monday.

Lawmakers had floated raising taxes to pay for roads, but Hutchinson has said he’s opposed to any hikes. Legislative leaders have said there’s no support in the majority-GOP House and Senate for an increase without a tax cut elsewhere. Similarly, efforts to divert any tax revenue related to vehicles to highways are opposed by Democrats who say it would jeopardize other state services.

Republican Sen. Bill Sample, who co-sponsored the competing highway plan, said he’ll support Hutchinson’s proposal on Monday. Sample, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers need to work on something longer term for roads.

“This is a short-term plan. I think we need an intermediate plan and then from there we need a long-term plan,” Sample told reporters.

Hutchinson said he doesn’t think there will be support for a tax increase at the Legislature next year and said a better route for any hike would be a ballot initiative in 2018.

“It ought to be initiated by the voters and it ought to go to the ballot,” Hutchinson said. “I think you’ll wind up with a good product and the voters will be able to look at it.”


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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