It is not often that Gov. Mike Beebe is joined by both the chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas and the Republican Party of Arkansas for an announcement at his office, but such was the case today.
As Beebe announced that he was calling a special election in November to renew the $575 million highway GARVEE bonds, RPA Chairman Doyle Webb was on his left and DPA Chairman Will Bond was on his right. Beebe joked that perhaps they should switch sides.
Webb said he believes this is an issue both Republicans and Democrats should support.
"There are no new taxes. There is a revenue stream already in place," explained Webb. "We can accelerate our economic development with good interstate highways. So let’s get it done; it will be paid for in 12 years."
The original 12-year bonds were passed by the voters in 1999 under then Gov. Mike Huckabee. Although the bonds expire, the four-cent fuel tax increase is permanent; therefore, the renewal of the bond is not a tax increase.
Webb indicated that most of the Republican legislators also support renewing the bonds. Sen. Bill Sample (R-Hot Springs) was the only other elected Republican I saw in attendance today, but Webb stated that House Minority Leader John Burris, Senate Minority Whip Michael Lamoureux, and Republican Co-chair of Joint Budget Committee, Sen. Gilbert Baker, all support the highway bond proposal, but were unable to attend.
One complaint some conservatives have raised has been the additional projected $1 million in expense of conducting a separate special election rather than timing the election to occur at the same time as a regularly scheduled election, such as the May primary. However, Webb did not seem concerned by this additional cost.
quot;If you look at the cost of this project, if you look at the money it will save and the economic development it will create, I think it will be a positive," said Webb. "The sooner we can get this project underway, it will create 28,000 jobs. That is important to the people of Arkansas."
Beebe agreed with Webb that it was worth the cost to have the special election now.
"We want to concentrate all of the attention on this that we possibly can," said Beebe. "And this is such a united, non-divisive issue from the political spectrum – at least from the political spectrum that is represented here – that it is nice to have it separate and apart from things that normally divide people."
Democratic House Speaker Robert Moore was pleased to see the bipartisan support for the bond and was hopeful this would translate into future support for additional funding sources for highway improvements.
"I think it was shown today with Doyle (Webb) and Will (Bond) up there – everybody understands that this is one thing government has to do. Government has to build the roads so we have got to have the revenue to do it. I think the campaign will continue to enlighten people to the importance of what it means to the future of not only their personal lives being able to commute successfully and safely on our highways, but also economic development growth," said Moore. "The alternative – and this is not a good scenario – is our roads getting in such bad shape over the next five, ten, fifteen years that people will finally go ‘Well, we have got to pay for this.’ By then, of course the cost of making the repairs will have gone through the roof and will cost so much more money."
Moore said that polls indicate that there is currently not enough support to pass the proposed five-cent increase in the diesel tax for additional highway funds, so they will not currently call for this special election even though the legislature passed a measure allowing the governor to do so.
"We did not want to take the chance of getting these two issues inextricably entwined in voter’s minds and end up not being able to pass the GARVEE renewal program. This is so important – it is not what we would have liked to have seen, but it is where we are and I think we can focus on this and it will be a success. And then we go back to the table and figure out what we are going to do long-term," said Moore.