State Chamber Chief on potential Congressional action, half-cent highway tax

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 699 views 

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce CEO Randy Zook outlined his hopes for potential legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic and he underscored his rationale for voter passage of a permanent half-cent sales tax for roads this November.

Zook was a guest on this Sunday’s (July 26) edition of Talk Business & Politics.

The COVID-19 pandemic has torpedoed the economy, created social unrest, and has Congress considering a fifth round of stimulus and support for citizens and businesses. Zook said he hopes there is another round of individual stimulus in the package currently under consideration for lower- and middle-income earners.

“I think, say something like $60,000, below that you could make the argument that we need to sustain demand and keep the gears turning. I don’t think you’d have much pushback about that. I think the big focus for most business people is around unemployment,” Zook said.

He believes the $600 monthly unemployment extension that expires July 31 has been too generous and caused some furloughed and laid-off workers to avoid seeking employment. Zook argues that a smaller initial supplement followed by a stair-stepped decline over time is the best approach.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has signed an executive order that provides limited liability protection against lawsuits for businesses that re-open under COVID-19 guidelines. Workers’ advocates contend that the protection gives employers a free pass to not protect workers and thus avoid being held accountable in court. Zook thinks a temporary, targeted version of this exemption should be made in the federal bill under consideration.

“I think the employer deserves to have continued coverage and protection from an assumption that if you work in a place, then that’s the only place you could have picked up the virus. That’s a tough case to make,” he said. “What we need on a national level is not long term, it needs to be timely, it needs to be temporary, and it needs to be targeted.”

This November, a legislative-referred amendment will be on the ballot that will make permanent a half-cent sales tax for highways in Arkansas.

The chamber is an ardent supporter of Hutchinson’s $300 million overall road plan initiative, which is expected to pump hundreds of millions into the economy annually to fix and repair highway infrastructure.

Zook said the reeling economy from COVID-19 makes passage of the tax hike more important than ever for jobs and economic stimulus as well as stable highway funding.

“I think it’s even more important than ever that we get predictable, reasonably adequate funding for the highway system. It’s the lifeblood of Arkansas, everything from manufacturing, to farming, to schools, to service businesses, employees have got to be able to get around. Kids have got to be able to get around on buses, customers have got to be able to get to stores. Retailers now, the delivery companies have got to be able to get to residents just to deliver a lot of the time,” he said.

When asked if the money for highway contracts should have a component to mandate that Arkansas companies get highest priority, Zook said no.

“That’s a formula for disaster,” he said. “You need the most competitive, low price, high quality provider of any services possible.”

You can watch Zook’s full interview in the video below.

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