Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the highway bill that appears headed for passage Monday had to be a five-year plan and he said that any tax increase for highways needs to come through an initiated act.
Hutchinson’s highway bill, HB1009, by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, on Friday passed both the House and the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee. It must pass the full Senate Monday and appears to have the votes.
The bill will use about $50 million in state funds to make the state eligible for $200 million in federal funds each of the next five years.
Speaking to reporters in his office Friday, Hutchinson said a five-year plan was needed rather than a shorter-term one, as some legislators wanted, to ensure Arkansas is eligible for the federal match each of the five years.
“You don’t know what other options will be presented, adopted, or acceptable,” he said. “So there’s always the potential that there will be another plan that will come around that is more longer term, that will have a higher volume of revenue for the Highway Department. But that’s an uncertain future, and we would be remiss if we left here from this session without having a plan that goes at least five years that assures us of the maximum amount of federal money.”
Hutchinson said he doesn’t believe the political climate will be different in January. Legislators will not be enthusiastic about raising taxes for highways, so any such effort will have to come through a voter initiated act.
Hutchinson’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Beebe, typically didn’t call special sessions until the outcome was certain. This special session, like an earlier session to pass the governor’s Arkansas Works program, did not go smoothly. There was a time when passage of the highway plan wasn’t assured.
Asked about calling the session when the outcome was uncertain, Hutchinson said, “I think that’s the wrong standard. What’s the objective in life? Is it to accomplish significant legislative action, or is to to get things done in a cookie-cutter fashion where the outcome is known before you start? While you like to do all your homework in advance, the fact is, if I would have insisted upon, ‘everybody sign on to the highway plan before we start,’ we’d never got it done.”
He said lawmakers needed the pressure of the legislative session.
“If I would have sat here as governor and said, ‘I want to make sure that I’ve got all the necessary folks before we begin, we wouldn’t have passed Arkansas Works. We wouldn’t have got the funding for Arkansas Works. We wouldn’t have gotten a highway plan through, which we still haven’t gotten it through. But I’m more interested in the ultimate result, and sometimes you’ve got to lay it out there and say, ‘This is what we’ve got to do,’ and trust that the Legislature will be responsive to it.”
Hutchinson pointed to previous governors who have had difficult special sessions. According to research by his staff, there have been 36 special sessions since 1966, and most featured more than the 15 items that were on this session’s call. One of then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s sessions involved 285 items.
Of those past special sessions, Hutchinson said, “They have been certainly not guaranteed from the beginning as to the outcome. Sometimes they resulted in runaway, difficult sessions. Sometimes the governor got criticized for it, but they were people who were wanting to accomplish great things for the state.”
This is Hutchinson’s third special session since he was elected in November 2014. He said he didn’t want to have too many of them.
“There should be a high standard for it. but sometimes there’s things that require a quicker response and can’t wait until a general session, so I can’t predict what is necessary in the future,” he said. “I certainly will resist the special sessions unless there is an extraordinary need.”