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Governor pushing sales tax for roads

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday asked several hundred people participating in the Arkansas Municipal League’s virtual convention to support a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot to make permanent the state’s half-cent sales tax for highways and roads.

Voters originally approved the tax in November 2012 and it was to last 10 years.

“This initiative, which the General Assembly put on the ballot, gives us the chance to extend the half-cent sales tax for the maintenance and construction of roads, highways and bridges,” Hutchinson said in his brief taped remarks played at the league’s 86th annual convention, this one on Zoom.

“I hope you’ll encourage the folks in your community to vote to approve this vital source of funding,” the Republican governor said.

The amendment will be Issue 1 on the general election ballot.

[RELATED » Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

State Department of Finance and Administration officials have projected that it would raise about $205 million a year for highways and about $43 million a year apiece for cities and counties for their roads.

Asked whether it will be more difficult to pass the proposal amid the covid-19 pandemic, Hutchinson on Thursday replied, “Not necessarily.

“The pandemic brings an unknown ingredient into the election this year, and I think it does cause us to want to make sure that we have a good campaign for it, that the people don’t stay home, that they actually get out and vote, and that’s true in every part of the election, but it impacts Issue 1,” he said in an interview.

“I think it is the unknown that you don’t want to take for granted, and that’s why I will be mentioning it in just about every group I speak to,” Hutchinson said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Vote for Roads, Vote for Issue 1 is the name of the ballot committee promoting the amendment. There isn’t a ballot committee opposing it.

Through the end of last month, the Vote for Roads committee reported raising about $1.8 million and spending about $182,000, leaving a balance of about $1.6 million. Its largest contributors included Tyson Foods Inc., J.B. Hunt, Jim Walton and Alice Walton, who have contributed $100,000 apiece, according to the committee’s reports.

Robert Moery, campaign director for the committee, told the Municipal League convention that “this year is a presidential election year [and] the political climate is extremely volatile right now.

“There [are] issues from day to day that could very much impact what our message is and have an effect on when voters are going to the polls in November,” he said.

“We already have a big purchase to be on television starting a month from today,” Moery said.

He said the average Arkansan pays roughly $100 a year through the half-cent sales tax. The money raised will be spent fixing potholes and reducing traffic in populated areas, so people don’t have to fork out more money to pay for their vehicles driving on poor roads, Moery said.

COVID-19 IMPACT

In his taped remarks, Hutchinson told the Zoom audience that it’s a safe bet this convention will be the one they remember the most.

“Nothing has escaped the touch of covid-19,” he said. “The coronavirus has forced us to change the way we work, teach, workshop, visit a doctor and play. The coronavirus has challenged leaders in cities large and small, yet life hasn’t stopped.

“We continue to tend to the business of life, so when this toxic fog blows into history we’ll still have homes, jobs and an economy,” Hutchinson said.

He thanked municipal officials for rising to the challenge to keep communities alive and thriving and for their words of counsel and encouragement as he and his administration navigate the pandemic.

Also in taped remarks, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, told the convention that how the state emerges from the pandemic will largely depend on how leaders in Arkansas react.

“While the headlines may focus on the actions of our nation and state leaders, we know Arkansans are community-minded [and] Arkansans look to you for guidance,” he said.

“By encouraging your communities to do the right thing when all the wrong things are happening, we can lower the curve and get back to those things we enjoy, like Friday nights in the stadium and Saturday cookouts with friends,” Shepherd said.

While Arkansas is faring better than some other states when it comes to unemployment, many people are living with uncertainty about their next paycheck and municipal leaders are forced to make decisions about the future of their cities based on a temporary situation, he said.

He said that’s why the Legislative Council has been diligent in its oversight of the state’s spending of federal relief funds.

Hutchinson created the 15-member federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — the CARES Act — steering committee to recommend the best uses of the $1.25 billion.

Shepherd said he recently wrote to the committee asking for $100 million more for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program because of the need for additional internet access to handle the increased amount of work done remotely.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, made a similar request.

The program previously received $19.3 million in federal funds and $5.7 million in state funds.

The Legislative Council will consider the request today.

2021 SESSION AHEAD

As for the 2021 regular session starting in January, Shepherd said, “We are still working on a solution to convene the session in a way that is safe for legislators, staff and the general public.

“Be rest assured that we will not be sacrificing our transparency in the process,” he said, referring to video livestreaming of legislative meetings.

Afterward, Shepherd said, “The House probably has the biggest challenges between the House and Senate [for the regular session] just because of the number of members.”

The House has 100 seats; the Senate has 35.

Earlier this year, the House met in a special session and the fiscal session at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Jack Stephens Center, while the Senate met in its chambers in the state Capitol. Lawmakers socially distanced in both venues.

“My desire is to be here [for the regular session],” Shepherd said in an interview in his office near the House chambers.

“Right now, that’s what we are working towards,” he said. “At this point, that probably means that we are going to have to do something different in the chamber. We are going to have to space out. We may have to move some members to the gallery.”

The gallery is above the chamber.

House committee meetings are another challenge because their rooms can get very crowded, Shepherd said.

“We are looking at a couple of different options on that, as far as, are their certain rooms that we would use for committees versus other rooms that may be just too small, and then trying to look how we manage our committee agendas,” he said.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF Traffic flows on Interstate 49 as seen from the J.B. Hunt Transport headquarters in Lowell.


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