House floor could be the scene for a messy highway debate

by Roby Brock (roby@talkbusiness.net) 518 views 

One prominent House Democrat says taxes have been cut too much in recent years. A prominent Republican Senator has concerns over funding projections and agency accountability. Those frets combined with other political concerns could lead to a hard vote on the House floor for Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $300 million highway funding program.

Hutchinson’s plan to raise $300 million through a referred permanent half-cent sales tax, increasing gas and diesel fuel taxes, placing a new registration fee on alternative energy vehicles, and using a portion of dedicated revenues from expanded casino operations has sailed through the Arkansas Senate. It is expected to cruise out of House Revenue & Tax Committee this Tuesday, but could meet resistance on the House floor.

Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, explained his public criticism and vote against the governor’s road plan last week. Dismang said he questions whether or not the money from projected casino revenues will meet goals as part of the funding plan. If it doesn’t, he is fearful that money will be pulled from general revenues.

“That’s something I’ve advocated against really since the beginning on this highway funding question is that I don’t believe we need to be transferring general revenue to an independent commission,” Dismang said.

Dismang plans to bring a series of bills this week up for committee votes that will require the Arkansas Department of Transportation to provide more information to the legislature on its contract work. The bills are SB 385 and SB 386.

They aim to have certain procurement processes in place, he said.

“There are also some project reviews so that we can see what’s actually happening and make sure we have best practices and ensure that we’re actually utilizing those dollars to the best of our ability,” Dismang added.

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, who was first elected to the House in 2011, said he’s seen $500 million-plus cut from state revenues during his tenure. Murdock said he and other Democrats believe that reducing taxes was going to inevitably lead to a shortfall in funding for public services like roads.

“The plan that the Governor has gotten through the Senate committee on the floor we have issues, some issues with it. We want a plan, but how it’s formulated, the revenue transfer that’s one issue that the Senator mentioned, and then probably our bigger problem comes attached to some other things when you have reduced taxes by the amount that we have up to $500 million,” Murdock said. “It’s my suggestion that the money was there and the way we’re using it, distributing it, so now the taxes that have been imposed on people in six cent, three cent additional taxes on gasoline and fuels — diesel and fuels. That’s an issue, because now you’re taxing people to fix a problem that you had a solution to.”

Murdock said he and other Democrats not only have heartburn over the shortfall in funding that now exists due to tax cuts, but he believes legislators were elected to solve problems. Referring a vote to make the half-cent sales tax permanent is one Murdock would rather the legislature handle itself.

“I think that the people elected 135 of us to come here and make these tough votes. I know that my constituency wants me to have information, communicate with them, debate here in the General Assembly and then make decisions on their behalf with their input. So, it’s not a situation I think, Senator, that we need to send it back to the people. The people have sent us here to make this happen and we can make this happen a lot quicker if we take those votes,” Murdock said.

“Tax is not a bad word. The thing that we need to be is accountable and we’re able to justify the use of dollars. I don’t care whether you’re Republican or Democrat in this state, everyone knows that those roads need fixing and these people will allow us to make those votes. We can do it right here in the General Assembly. That’s why we’re here,” Murdock added.

While the State Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve the governor’s highway plan, the 100-member House will need 51 votes to approve the proposal. Murdock suggests there is discontent among the 24 House Democrats to support the plan. With tax and fee increases at the center of the highway plan, will Republicans provide enough votes for the tax hikes despite the political danger of voting for tax increases? Could those votes lead to primary challenges for GOP incumbents in 2020?

Watch more of Dismang’s and Murdock’s conversation in the video below, including their smack talk on Monday night’s Hoops for Kids’ Sake charity basketball game.

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