- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An effort to raise millions for Arkansas’ underfunded highways failed in the Legislature this year after facing heavy opposition from conservatives. Now the panel overseeing the state’s highways has to decide whether to try putting a road funding program before voters next year.

The Arkansas Highway Commission could decide this week whether it will attempt to place an initiated act on the 2018 ballot. It must consider how to word the proposal, how to campaign for it and how to overcome the same opposition that sunk a highway program during this year’s legislative session.

“At this point, I think the most important thing is to decide whether we’re going to pursue it and what the ultimate funding level is,” said Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

The highway plan that failed before the state House this year would have put a 20-year bond issue on the ballot and potentially raised $200 million annually for the state’s highways. The measure failed when some Republican lawmakers opposed an accompanying bill to raise taxes on gas and diesel to pay for the bonds.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who backed that measure, has indicated support for putting the proposal back on the ballot as an initiated act.

“In my view, we need to bring a highway plan to the voters in 2018 and give the voters an opportunity to develop a highway plan,” Hutchinson said at a rural development conference last month.

It’s not a sure thing that the failed tax increase proposal would be revived. If the commission pursues an initiated act, Bennett said the next step will be figuring out which proposal to place before voters. It’s possible the panel could push instead for an effort to tap into general revenue, a move that would likely draw opposition from advocates who say that would hamper an already limited budget and threaten other state services. Or the panel could try for some hybrid approach that seeks additional funding through multiple sources of revenue.

Any highway program pursued this way faces additional hurdles that wouldn’t exist with a legislatively referred proposal. The measure will have to win certification from the state attorney general’s office and supporters will have to submit nearly 68,000 signatures to place the proposal on the ballot.

“The difficulty is, no you don’t have to get the support of a majority of 135 legislators, but you may have to get 68,000 signatures from people that are willing to say, ‘Yes, let’s put this on the ballot,’” Bennett said.

The other challenge will be overcoming any opposition campaign, either from anti-tax groups or advocates concerned with the prospect of tapping into general revenue for roads, if that is ultimately proposed.

“It would be disappointing for the Highway Commission to advocate for higher taxes instead of first seeking efficiency and overall reform,” said Teresa Oelke, senior vice president of state operations for Americans for Prosperity, which has opposed past efforts to raise taxes for highways. Oelke said the group agrees with an idea floated by legislative leaders that any discussion of additional highway funding should occur through a task force looking at overhauling the state’s tax code.

The head of the Good Roads Foundation, which has called for increased highway funding, pointed to the past success of highway programs as a sign that voters are willing to back efforts to improve the state’s roads. Those past successes include a victory in 2012, when voters approved a sales tax increase for highways at the same time they handed control of the Legislature to Republicans who had run on an anti-tax platform.

“I think I would rely on the knowledge of the Arkansas voter to decide whether or not that’s something they want to do,” said Craig Douglass, the foundation’s executive director. “Voters have been very supportive of highway programs in the past. I don’t know that that has changed.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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