A group that supports increased highway funding released survey findings Wednesday (Jan. 4) showing almost two-thirds of likely 2018 voters favor making permanent the current half-cent sales tax for highway improvements, but 82% want to make that decision rather than legislators, and 81% would be more likely to support a state legislator who votes to give them that opportunity.
The survey of 800 Arkansans by the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation was presented to the Highway Commission on Wednesday.
Approved by voters in 2012, the half-cent sales tax funds the Connecting Arkansas Program and expires in 2023. In the survey, 62% favor making the tax permanent, and 81% of those supporters said they would vote “today” to make it permanent in 2023.
Craig Douglass, the group’s executive director, said in an interview that the percentage of supportive Arkansans increased from 62% to 69% when asked the same question at the end of the survey.
Eighty-one percent said they would be more likely to support a legislator who referred a highway tax increase to the voters. However, 45% would be less likely to support a legislator who voted to increase highway taxes, while 38% would be less likely.
Respondents were more comfortable extending the existing half-cent sales tax, which exempts food and fuel, than they were with increasing the motor fuels tax. Sixty-two percent oppose increasing the current motor fuels tax of 21.5 cents per gallon of gasoline and 22.5 cents per gallon of diesel. Another 58.5% oppose indexing tax increases to keep up with inflation in construction costs.
Douglass said 56% said they were more likely to support a motor fuels tax increase when informed that the tax had not increased in 15 years. However, only 48% supported an increase of 3 cents per gallon, which would raise only $60 million a year – far less than highway advocates say is needed.
Forty-eight percent favored collecting a sales tax on fuel at the wholesale level while 44% were opposed in a survey with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5%. Douglass said that idea could attract more support after a campaign. A poll conducted before the 2012 campaign to raise the half-cent sales tax showed Arkansans opposed 40-58%. After the campaign, the tax passed with 58% support.
“We think it could have some traction once you got into the context of a campaign and explained it, what the benefits were there,” he said.
In the survey, 90% of respondents agreed that the state’s highways and roads “are in need of repair,” 56% were “unhappy” with the roads “where they live,” and 86% disagreed with the roads being “fine just the way they are.” Another 73% favored continuing to split highway revenues between the state, cities and counties – a ratio that traditionally has been 70-15-15.
The Foundation undertook the survey as part of a research project requested by Gov. Asa Hutchinson June 30. In addition to the survey, it conducted five regional focus groups and met with more than 20 stakeholder groups such as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Trucking Association, the Arkansas Municipal League and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. An online survey conducted with those stakeholder groups yielded another 1,500 responses.
Legislators go into regular session Jan. 9. Asked about the research project during a press conference Wednesday, Hutchinson said, “Anything would have to be referred by the Legislature to a vote of the people is really what’s the largest arena of discussion, and so as we enter the session, that information is very important. There’s not been a consensus developed yet.”
Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, a supporter of increasing highway funding, noted that most respondents aren’t satisfied with the state’s highway system.
“It sounds like there is a lot more support publicly than I thought there might be for extending the half-cent sales tax, making it permanent for highway funding,” he said. He said removing the wholesale exemption on motor fuels is “another interesting concept.”
Douglas said legislators would notice that most voters would be more likely to vote for a lawmaker who referred a tax increase to them. However, some legislators who referred the half-cent sales tax to voters in 2012 were attacked by interest groups for supporting a large tax increase. Some legislators have signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” promising to oppose any efforts to increase taxes. Some of them will see this as a violation of the pledge.
He said he expects “within two or three weeks, we ought to have somebody” that would produce a proposal to refer a tax measure to the voters. He said he would consider being the one to carry that bill.
“The thing is, if we want these potholes fixed, if we want congestion minimized by widening roads and upgrading our system, if we don’t want bridges collapsing underneath us and underneath our school buses with our children and grandchildren in them, then we’d better figure out some way to fund our highways,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said he sees “almost no chance” of legislators voting for a tax increase or extension, but there is “a small chance” of a referral – “but even that’s going to be an uphill climb,” he said.