Governor’s highway bill could be headed to new committee; competing bill advances

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 113 views 

The Senate sponsor of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway package plans to run it through a new committee Friday after he twice was unable to move it Thursday and after it failed to pass the Senate Transportation Committee. Meanwhile, that committee passed a competing highway bill late Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said he’ll need 18 votes to move the House version of SB11 to the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee. That version passed easily out of the House Rules Committee and is expected to pass the full House Friday morning.

“We’ve got more than 18 votes that are willing to re-refer that bill,” he told reporters. “I think I’ve got more than enough.”

Hester first tried to move the bill to that committee Thursday morning, but the bid failed. He said several supporters were not in the room at the time of the vote. Later that morning, the Senate Transportation Committee deadlocked on the bill 4-4. He tried again that afternoon in the Senate to expunge the motion to re-refer, but that required a two-thirds vote, and he fell short.

Hester said he would not try to pass the bill through the Senate Transportation Committee again.

“The votes weren’t there,” he said. “They wanted to have the exercise, and they said, ‘Oh, no, come here. You’ll get a fair hearing.’ … Whatever. They wanted to come in there and be able to vote it down, and they got that opportunity. But they won’t get that opportunity again.”

Hutchinson called legislators into special session in order to find about $50 million a year in state funds so the state will receive $200 million in matching federal funds. Legislators and the governor hope to end the session in three days.

Hester’s bill would create the Arkansas Highway Improvement Plan of 2016, which would be funded by an Arkansas Highway Transfer Fund. For 2017, the state would make a one-time transfer of $40 million in rainy day funds to the Highway Transfer Fund. In the future, the Highway Transfer Fund would come from deposits of 25% of state surplus funds. A Securities Reserve Fund would generate $1.5 million for the Highway Transfer Fund in fiscal year 2017 and $20 million in the following years. The bill also would dedicate to highways money generated by diesel taxes and taxes from the half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2012. Some of those tax dollars currently go into general revenues.

The Senate Transportation Committee later voted 6-2 for SB12, a bill by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, that mirrors the first year of Hester’s bill and then sunsets. Hickey believes a longer term solution is needed and would like to spend the rest of the year and next year’s regular session looking for one. If one can’t be found, he said he would support Hester’s bill.

Earlier in the day, Hutchinson told a joint session of legislators that he doesn’t want a one-year bill.

“I do not view this as a one-time fix,” he said. “It’s a plan to meet our match for the next five years or more.”

Hester’s bill wasn’t the only bill supported by Hutchinson that failed to pass a Senate Committee. A 105-page bill supporters say will make government more efficient failed in the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs after a version had passed in the House committee of the same name. The bill repeals 11 task forces and changes others and includes language that would reduce paperwork performed by foster care caseworkers. But it also moves the History Commission into the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which is a cause of concern for some.

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee voted down a bill by Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, that would merge Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute with East Arkansas Community College. The two schools are adjacent to each other.

David Brown, Crowley’s Ridge interim president, expressed concern that students would lose benefits such as the school’s transportation service and would have to pay more for classes and attend more of them. Hutchinson said in his address that the merger would make students eligible for the Academic Challenge Scholarship.

Afterwards, Caldwell said he would not try to rerun the bill. He said legislators wanted to give the two schools time to merge voluntarily. If not, several had warned Crowley’s Ridge that legislation would be passed during next year’s regular session to make a merger mandatory.