Tort Reform Upstages Effort to Put Road Funding Measure on Arkansas Ballot

By | February 8, 2018

The Arkansas Highway Commission has voted to drop an effort to put a road funding plan on the November ballot and instead will try again with a proposal it will advocate to lawmakers next year.

Commissioners cited the difficulties they encountered in pushing for an initiative this year, noting that a separate ballot measure limiting court damages had the backing of industry groups they hoped would support any highway package. The panel also faced an early July deadline to submit thousands of signatures from registered voters in order to qualify for the November ballot.

“We thought before we took it to the people, give the 2019 legislators a chance to assist us,” said Tom Schueck, the panel’s vice chairman. The panel left open the possibility of trying with a ballot measure in 2020 on its own if the Legislature doesn’t pass a highway funding package.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the commission’s decision to hold off on putting an initiative on the ballot “emphasizes the importance of the Arkansas Highway Improvement Plan that we passed in 2016.”

“It makes sense to wait till 2019 to find a longer term solution,” he said in an emailed statement. “By then we will know whether a federal infrastructure bill can pass Congress.”

The decision to halt the road funding effort comes nearly a year after lawmakers rejected a proposal to put a 20-year bond issue on the ballot and potentially raise $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.

The commission last year voted to pursue a ballot measure but had not endorsed a specific proposal or amount. The proposal faced an obstacle last fall when Hutchinson said he would oppose any measure that called for tapping into general revenue, such as taxes collected from vehicle sales.

Commissioners said they think they will be in a better position with the Legislature next year and will present information from surveys regarding how the public feels about highway needs and possible funding proposals.

“We have no problems with the Legislature in 2019,” Chairman Dick Trammel said. “We want to work with them and hope they will work with us on creating better highways for the citizens of Arkansas.”

The commission also distanced itself from another measure a group is trying to place on the ballot that calls for allowing up to three casinos in Arkansas, with most of its revenue going toward highways. The commission said in a statement that the $45 million supporters of the casino measure say it would raise for roads is a fraction of the $478 million in additional funding that highway officials say is needed annually.