Whither a highway program? | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Whither a highway program?

Posted By on Tue, Jan 11, 2011 at 9:18 AM

If anything stood out in opening day ceremonies of the Arkansas legislature, it was House Speaker Robert Moore's fervent call for the need to figure out a way to shovel billions more into the state's road-building program. He knows a tax increase would be hard. He talks a lot about reformulating how highways are financed.

It is hard not to believe that Moore doesn't have something specific up his sleeve — not for the distant future, but for this session. A straight tax increase is an impossibility, it seems to me. A voter referendum on a tax increase perhaps less so. But I remain nervous about the road contractor lobby's long passion to sequester a share of general revenues for themselves. If this is done by, say, taking sales taxes on vehicle-related sales (batteries and such), it would come with serious damage to schools, prisons and health care. Perhaps the road builders can convince the state that essential needs are fully funded — indeed bloated. It's worked on the national level.

Also interesting about Moore's first day was his bipartisan appointment of four Republican committee chairs, a reflection of the bipartisan support he enjoyed in his election. (Wonder if that spirit will survive a nearly 50-50 House next time around?) Two are particularly worthy of note — Davy Carter as chairman of Revenue and Taxation, where tax cuts and increases will go to live or die, and Transportation, now headed by Jonathan Barnett.

Barnett is particularly interesting as a favored Republican. He's a national Republican chairman. But he doesn't exactly come from the Tea Party wing of the party. He's a wealthy businessman whose clout earned him a prestigious Highway Commission appointment. Highway commissioners LOVE to build roads. Historically, they've been happy to work for tax increases to do it. The old route has been per-gallon taxes. What with increasing fuel efficiency, that's not an elastic source of money. An excise tax would be a better course or applying the sales tax to fuel. Tough choices in today's climate. It is safe to say the red-hots of the Republican Tea Party think moderation in outlook on increasing government revenue is no virtue. All of this is to say that some Republicans suggest we might see sooner rather than later one of the signs of a vibrant political party — internal friction. At a minimum Barnett could be expected to espouse the money-follows-cars theory of highway finance that would push a larger share of the pie to his part of the state (NWA).

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