Arkansans will soon have a new billion-dollar highway program, but it appears state voters narrowly rejected a medical marijuana proposal and by a wider margin rejected a change in financing options for city and county governments.
With 60 of 75 counties reporting, a half-cent sales tax increase for highway construction had captured more than 58% of the vote, according to the Arkansas Secretary of State website. The new tax proceeds will pay for bonds to finance $1.3 billion in four-lane highway improvements, which, with existing revenue, will provide $1.8 billion for four-lane projects during the next 10 years.
Cities and counties will each receive 15% of revenue under the program, with that estimated to direct $670 million in the next 10 years to local governments for local road projects.
County and city turnback totals for Sebastian County are estimated at $26.362 million during a 10-year period (around $2.636 million annually), while county and city turnback totals for Crawford County are expected to hit $11.745 million (around $1.174 million annually).
County and city turnback totals for Benton and Washington counties combine at around $86 million, while county and city turnback totals for Pulaski County are expected to be $80.310 million.
However, Northwest Arkansas and Central Arkansas will also receive $375 million and $648 million, respectively, in special project funding separate from turnback totals. The Fort Smith area is not scheduled to receive any special project funding.
“Issue No. 1 had wide support from both sides of the political aisle when our State Legislature put this issue on the ballot last year, and voters from both political parties showed they recognize how important infrastructure improvements are to our state’s future,” said Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “In a decade, we’ll look back at this Issue No. 1 decision as a milestone in advancing our region and advancing our state.”
With 60 of 75 counties reporting, a little more than 51% of voters had opposed the medical marijuana proposal.
The measure, recently allowed to appear on the ballot by the Arkansas Supreme Court, would allow for up to 30 nonprofit dispensaries in Arkansas. Local cities and counties could choose to ban them. If the law had been approved, marijuana would only be available to people with a prescription for certain health conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDs, Alzheimer’s disease and several other conditions. The proposal allows for a patient to have up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana without the threat of prosecution.
In the final weeks of the election cycle, proponents and opponents beefed up their messaging on the issue. On Thursday, Oct. 11, the Family Council Action Committee unveiled a TV commercial that aired in the days leading up to the election. The TV spot contends the proposal will it is make it easier to get illegal drugs.
Supporters of the medicinal marijuana measure, Arkansans for Compassionate Care, are also planning to raise the profile of the issue. Television talk show host Montel Williams was in Arkansas before Election Day to promote the effort. Williams talked about his use of medical marijuana to relieve the pain of multiple sclerosis. He said medical marijuana is preferred over approved painkillers because it does not have the “debilitating side effects of legal narcotics.”
The poll numbers shifted on the issue as election day approached. In late July, a sample of Arkansas likely voters found that 47% would support and 46% would oppose the proposal, according to a Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll.
But in mid-October, only 38% said they would support it, with 54% opposed.
With 60 of 75 counties reporting, more than 56% of voters had opposed a plan to adjust how cities and counties can finance debt.
State lawmakers referred the measure for voter consideration in the 2011 General Assembly. It was designed to city and county governments three new financing powers.
It authorized cities and counties to create districts for development and redevelopment projects funded by bonds tied to a sales tax collected within the district. In some states, these are referred to as STAR (sales tax revenue) bonds and are used to create entertainment districts.
The proposal would also authorize a municipality or county to issue bonds and levy a local sales and use tax for the purpose of retiring unfunded liabilities of closed local police and fire pension plans.
The third change would have amended Amendment 78 of the Arkansas Constitution to provide that annual principal and interest payments on short-term financing obligations could be paid for by general revenues or special revenues. This would allow cities and counties to finance a fleet of police cars or expensive road grader equipment with a dedicated revenue stream.
Without much public education or a high-profile media campaign, voters offer mixed opinions on the ballot issue’s fate. A mid-October poll conducted by Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll of 868 likely Arkansas voters, showed that 35% supported the issue, 35% opposed and 30% were unsure.