LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas highway officials on Wednesday left open the possibility they’ll take a road funding proposal to lawmakers in 2019 rather than pursue a ballot measure next year. The move comes a day after Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would oppose any plan that called for tapping into general revenue.
Department of Transportation Director Scott Bennett said he has not given up on a ballot measure to raise money for highways, but he said waiting until the 2019 legislative session may be another avenue for a funding proposal. Bennett told the state Highway Commission on Wednesday that he would come to the panel in December with a list of projects that could be paid for with a funding proposal.
“I think we need to keep moving forward toward a solution, whether that solution is going to come as a possibility of a ballot measure in 2018 or a legislative measure in 2019, we’re going to keep working that direction,” Bennett told reporters after speaking to the commission. “I do think it would be a heavy lift in 2018 because of the other issues that are going to be on the ballot, but we haven’t decided it’s completely off the table.”
The commission voted in June to pursue a highway funding ballot measure, but it has not endorsed a specific funding proposal. Hutchinson on Tuesday said he’d vigorously oppose one of the ideas floated — diverting tax revenue from road-related items such as car sales to highways — because of the impact it would have on other state services.
Bennett said Hutchinson’s position wasn’t surprising and that he would come back to the panel with road funding proposal options that wouldn’t rely on tapping into general revenue. Bennett showed the panel several possible funding proposals that would tap into such revenue but also raise taxes to pay for highways. Highway officials have said they have $9.3 billion in road needs over the next decade, but only about $4.5 billion in expected revenue.
Commissioners said they haven’t completely given up on a ballot measure or closed the door on tapping general revenue as an option. Tom Schueck, the commission’s vice chairman, said closing that funding gap without general revenue would be difficult. But he said not having the governor’s support would also be an impediment.
“You’re either going to have to lower your needs, and I don’t know how you can do that, or you’re going to have to find all kinds of different ways to get the money,” Schueck said. “There’s been a real change from yesterday to today as far as the way we’re looking at it.”
Bennett said the commission would likely need to decide by March whether to pursue a ballot measure in order to have enough time to gather the thousands of signatures needed to qualify for the fall 2018 ballot.