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Highway robbery: Hutchinson's plan 

Ever since the second great war, when the automobile became ubiquitous even in poor Arkansas, the one reliable rule of politics was that you couldn't go wrong by asking people to pay more taxes for highways, roads and streets.

click to enlarge Gov. Asa Hutchinson - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Gov. Asa Hutchinson

Ever since the second great war, when the automobile became ubiquitous even in poor Arkansas, the one reliable rule of politics was that you couldn't go wrong by asking people to pay more taxes for highways, roads and streets. Rough roads were the most common gripe about government, and taxpayers never punished a governor who sought more road taxes or the legislators who voted for them.

Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton demanded higher motor-fuel taxes for highways and streets no less than three times each, and each time three-fourths of a conservative legislature rewarded them with big tax hikes. Voting against a highway tax was more likely to get you beat than voting for it. A college acquaintance of mine got himself beat by voting against Gov. Orval Faubus' penny jump in the gasoline tax as a young representative in 1965. Highway officials sent word to leaders in his county that they obviously did not need any highway improvements down there or their boy would not have opposed the tax.

But there was always a caveat: Highways could not be seen as taking money from schools. Roads were to be built by taxes paid by those who used them and in proportion to how much they used them: mainly motor fuel taxes and truck- and car-license fees.

Occasionally, the big road lobby tried to carve out some general revenues for highways in lieu of raising diesel taxes or weight fees on big trucks or other taxes that might impinge even slightly on the sales and profits of the fuel industry. But the education lobby always proved a little stronger.

That was then.

Now, the school lobby — make that the pro-public-school lobby — doesn't carry the clout of old. Gov. Hutchinson's long-awaited highway program, which promises $750 million in new highway spending over the next 10 years, takes the money not from highway users, including the trucking, shipping and fuel industries, but from education, now as always the most hard-pressed function in all of state government.

No, the governor doesn't describe his highway plan that way. And, no, every single new highway dollar may not be a theft from the kids and their teachers, because it is impossible to calculate exactly how much any service of government will suffer if you transfer $750 million over 10 years from the state's general revenues to highways. Most general revenues traditionally have gone to education, though the schools' share has been shrinking.

The governor's plan is to take $20 million of the 2015 surplus (unspent general revenues) and give it to highways; take $20 million of the governor's rainy-day fund (general revenues) and give it to highways; take $4 million of diesel taxes that currently goes to general revenues and divert it to highways each year; take another $5.4 million of general revenues that comes from a temporary sales tax for highways and give it, too, to highways until the tax ends in about 2022; and take $48 million every year from surplus general revenues (the infamous General Improvement Fund) that legislators have been carving out for themselves to spend each year currying favor with interests in their districts and give that to highways.

Let it be said that this is mostly pie in the sky. Most of that $750 million is not likely to occur because it assumes that (1) the Obama economic boom that occurred after the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2013 will continue unabated for 10 years, flushing so much money into the treasury that surpluses will pile up year after year, (2) the growing minority of legislators fighting Obamacare will not vote to scrap the Medicaid phase of it, which has been saving the state tens of millions of dollars a year in matching, and swelling the coffers with perhaps a hundred million dollars a year in new receipts, and (3) all those tax cuts enacted in 2013, 2014 and 2015 to offset the growth in revenue from Obamacare will actually produce stunning economic growth and jobs rather than the lower tax receipts that tax cuts have always produced, here and elsewhere (see Washington, D.C., Kansas and Louisiana).

My wager is that the governor will face grievous budget problems in 2018, if not before, and that a flattened road program will be the least of his problems.

Ten years ago, education funding was the state's gravest problem. It was supposed to be settled by the Continuing Adequacy Evaluation Act of 2004, which invoked a permanent remedy to Arkansas's ancient problem of having the weakest education in America. An Education Adequacy Committee — the legislature's joint committees on education — would take research on what a suitable education for all Arkansas children would cost, based mostly on what the rest of the states were doing, and that sum would be appropriated and funded automatically, even if everything else in government had to be cut. That got the schools declared constitutional.

But a committee chairman meekly acknowledged last year that what has happened the past several years is that they have determined how much money the state was likely to have the next year and how much of it could be carved out for education without harming the rest of government and that was the amount appropriated as "adequate." That is precisely what the 2004 act says is illegal. Since 2004, Arkansas has fallen steadily farther behind both the region and the country in things like teacher pay. But it produced giant lagniappe each year for the legislators to spend on supporters back home.

This is Gov. Hutchinson's program, but it is not too generous to say that he would probably like it to be much different — say, like it was under his Republican predecessor Huckabee, who always raised taxes rather than cut services or transfer funds. The reality is that if Hutchinson's party has one tenet now, it is that all taxes are terrible and to be avoided at all cost. Six times in his office's short statement announcing his highway program we were told that it DID NOT RAISE TAXES.

By the way, the last time the taxpayers themselves spoke on the subject was 2012, when they voted 58 percent to 42 percent for $1.3 billion in highway debt and new taxes.

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