Rep. Jonathan Barnett (R-Siloam Springs) has been charged with a daunting task this legislative session: help House Speaker Robert Moore craft a passable highway program.
Barnett, who heads the House Public Transportation Committee, is also a former highway commissioner and he is well aware of the need Arkansas’ roads have for investment. He’s also a Republican from northwest Arkansas who can read the temperature of voters opposed to tax increases. Yet, he is in a leadership position to address a big problem in need of big solution.
In November, a blue ribbon highway finance panel outlined a laundry list of potential revenue sources in an effort to meet the $19 billion in estimated state and local road needs, but Barnett knows that even finding a fraction of that funding will be a tall task.
"The existing revenue source doesn’t keep up any more," said Barnett in reference to gasoline taxes, which have struggled to fund roads in large part due to improved car and truck mileage. "It’s flat and it’s been flat for 20 years. We’re trying to find some type of growth in state revenue to enhance the Highway Department’s ability to keep up with inflation and to keep up with the cost of maintaining the existing system, but also constructing new roads."
Barnett has filed a "shell" resolution – HJR 1001 – which proposes an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to "raise revenues to be used exclusively as highway revenues."
Barnett said he’s expecting to soon flush out details of the measure, which could be referred to voters for consideration in 2012.
"I think within two weeks it should be getting very serious," Barnett said in response to a timeframe for when he may amend his resolution.
While Barnett acknowledges there are many ideas being debated, Talk Business sources confirm that three primary ideas are being considered for raising revenues.
- A bond issue on the four-lane highway system which would be supported with a dedicated half-cent sales tax.
- Shifting general revenues for transportation-related goods and services (like sales of motor oil or a battery replacement) to highway funding. Gov. Mike Beebe has expressed his opposition to this plan.
- A five-cent diesel tax increase to pay for bonds for interstate construction and maintenance. This would be similar to a GARVEE bond highway program that Gov. Mike Huckabee successfully championed several years ago.
All or parts of these three concepts could be adopted into Barnett’s resolution.
And then, Sheffield Nelson’s initiated act proposal to possibly add another $250 million to roads annually through a higher severance tax could factor into the equation. For now, Barnett is keeping his thoughts to himself on that subject.
"I’m going to pass on that one right now," Barnett grinned. "I probably have an opinion, but I’m going to reserve that for the time being."
You can watch more of Barnett’s interview in this video below.