Governor's Highway Plan Passes House Panel But Truncated In Senate

May 19, 2016

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) addressing the Arkansas General Assembly at the start of a special session.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

A special session of the Arkansas Legislature is underway and the governor is still looking for more traction for his $50-million highway plan.

KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman reports on day one of the legislative session.

The business of legislating opened with the usual formalities.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) and Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Disman (R-Beebe) pledging allegiance to the United State of America at the beginning of the special
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

“At this time I appoint the following individuals to notify the Senate that the House in session and ready for business. Hopefully they’ll let you in the door…”

Speaker Jeremy Gillam called the House into order and gathered the Senate for a combined session to hear from the governor, Asa Hutchinson.

“The overriding and primary concern of this session is to deal with the need of highway funding here in Arkansas,” he said.

Hutchinson continued, making the case for his no-new taxes, five-year plan.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressing lawmakers at the start of a special session on highway funding.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

“The federal highway plan that Congress enacted provides for $200 million more in additional revenue for our highways, for Arkansas, provided we make the match,” said Hutchinson. “I just came from a meeting of other governors. They’re all scrambling as to how they can meet that match. Some do not have the support of the legislature to accomplish that and they will lose that funding.”

There are 14 other items on the call, running the gamut from publicity rights to pausing academic distress designations in schools. Hutchinson joked it’s not a long list compared to his predecessors.

“Governor Clinton in one session had 104 items and in another special session had 285. Senator Dismang and Speaker Gillam I want to assure I’m not going to do that,” jested Hutchinson.

But Hutchinson’s hope of a speedy, three-day session ran into a bit of a roadblock almost immediately after his remarks. The Senate Transportation Committee deadlocked 4 to 4 on the highway plan sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) and backed by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department

State Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) and Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett presenting the governor's highway bill to a committee.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

SAMPLE: Mr. Hester you have two bites at the apple.

HESTER: I understand. Thanks for this exercise.

Committee Chair Bill Sample of Hot Springs said the governor’s plan isn’t sustainable.

“You can build a road or a building with one-time money but you can’t maintain a highway with one-time money. That’s all it is,” Sen. Sample said to reporters after the vote.

Senator Bryan King was another Republican 'no' vote. The Berryville resident said he doesn’t want to start paying for highways with surplus funds.

“It’s not a plan, it’s a gamble,” said King after the vote. “Surpluses are only surpluses if you have them. With something like highways you need dedicated revenue streams. It’s very important to have that and we don’t have that in this bill.”

Senator Ronald Caldwell said the use of surplus funds – which for the first time ever sends general revenue to highways – amounts to a new tax burden for Arkansans. Traditionally user-based gas taxes have funded the state’s roadways.

“It’s a defacto, or incognito, or camouflage tax burden. While we’re not raising the tax rate on the people of Arkansas we are raising the tax burden,” he told the committee.

After several recesses and false-starts the committee reached a compromise. Instead of accepting the Republican governor’s plan, members passed on a 6-2 split a bill to support only the first year of the five year plan.

State Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) speaking to a committee about his highway funding plan (left).
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

Earlier in the day, Senator Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana said it was his preference, hoping to pass a long-term bill in next year’s longer, regular legislative session.

“I would prefer to get the federal match here, wait since we’re going to go into the regular session, see if we can figure out something again and if we can’t I would carry what your bill is,” Sen. Hickey said to bill sponsor Sen. Bart Hester.

Speaking to reporters prior to the committee vote Governor Hutchinson said he wasn’t interested in a one-year plan. He called his an “intermediate” plan rather than a short or a long-term scheme.

“This is not a one-time fix. It’s not a one-year plan. It’s a longer term plan. The federal highway bill goes for five years and so this provides matching funds each of those five years and a continuing stream of money to the highway commission. I would not want and would oppose any effort to restrict this to a one year plan,” said Gov. Hutchinson.

Hutchinson said he isn’t worried that surplus money won’t materialize in the future.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) speaking to reporters after addressing the Arkansas General Assembly to open the special session.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

“Let’s just see how it works out. I’m really confident about this plan. One, because we’ve always run a surplus because we’re conservative. Secondly, we’ve got other options for additional funding that flows into a rainy fund and gives us flexibility,” he said.

As for the fuel tax, part of longer-term solutions offered by those in his own typically tax increase-averse party, Hutchinson said that’s something he does not want to consider. He said if legislators want it they should send it to voters in a different session.

“If you present this in January to the legislature I doubt the mood will be any different for a tax increase in January versus now. The best alternative for a longer term plan would be to present that to the voters,” he said. “That can’t be done until 2018.”

When lawmakers head back to the Capitol on Friday morning they’ll have two highway plans to consider. The governor’s five-year plan that passed the House and the one-year version in the Senate. Backers of the governor’s plan in the Senate are also likely to refer the identical House version to a different, potentially more favorable committee than the Senate Transportation Committee that deadlocked on Thursday.