Arkansas Democratic House Leader Has Highway Funding Reservations

Jan 20, 2016

Chad Causey with Catfish Farmers of America (left) and state Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) speaking in House Agriculture in 2015.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

There may not be much outright opposition to the governor’s new highway funding proposal but Democratic Minority Leader Michael John Gray in the Arkansas House has his reservations. I caught up with him on Wednesday during the lunch break of an un-related health care task force meeting.

The state representative from Augusta said he agrees with Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department director Scott Bennett that the plan is a short-term fix. The funding proposal of $46.9 million in FY17 (building to $71.1 million in FY19) falls short of the governor’s own working group recommendation of $110 million annually for the first three years.

"It’s obviously a problem that’s going to hold our state back economically if we don’t develop a long-term plan,” said Gray. “I really would hope that the governor would have pushed for more legislation that addressed this problem long-term.”

Gray didn’t outright call for passing fuel tax increases or other revenue options endorsed by the governor’s committee on highway funding in December but he did suggest the governor was avoiding the option.

GRAY: Nobody in the political arena wants to say they advocate a tax increase. Nobody wants to say that, and I respect that, but the governor won with an overwhelming majority. He has been able to get effective legislation through the legislature. I think we have to look not at politically expediency but what’s the right thing to do to fund this thing.

KAUFFMAN: Does that mean including some tax increases as outlined by the governor’s working group?

GRAY: I think we should look at some long-term solutions and if those have to be included then let’s just flesh it out and not just play the politics of it in an election year.

The lawmaker said relying instead on surplus and general revenue funds could harm state services. Over half of the governor’s plan is funded by surplus funds by year five with most of the rest coming from redirected general revenue.

“I’m absolutely worried about taking money from general revenue. I applaud the governor’s efforts to find efficiency, and if we can find efficiency we should find efficiency, but education, pre-K, there are a lot of things we’ve been trying to fund that we can't find efficiencies for. We just cut taxes, capital gains taxes for what amounted to the 10 richest people in Arkansas and now we’re delving into the general fund.”

But Gray emphasized that he doesn’t think the plan is without merit, “it’s still a lot of money and we have to put it there to get a federal match, so I understand the short-term nature of it. But if we just keep coming up with short term solutions are we really doing our job here?”

When it comes down to voting in an expected special session in late Spring Gray didn’t suggest he’d vote against the plan.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t be supportive of it but I would hope this gets addressed on a larger scale," he said.