Governor: Poll shows 69% support for highway tax

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,168 views 

Sixty-nine percent of likely Arkansas voters favor a half-cent sales tax for roads that will be on the November ballot, according to a poll released by Gov. Asa Hutchinson Sept. 23.

The poll of 800 likely voters by Gilmore Strategy Group found 69% in favor of Issue 1 and 18% opposed, with 13% undecided.

The governor released the poll during a noon speech before the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 3.5%.

Poll respondents were read the title that will appear on the ballot and asked if they would be for or against the measure. Responses were:

– Definitely for: 44%
– Probably for: 25%
– Definitely against: 10%
– Probably against: 8%

Hutchinson said the tax had 69% support among Republicans, 72% support among Democrats, and 68% support among independents.

The governor said the measure had strong support across the state’s media markets. The highest was Jonesboro, where it had 81% support.

If approved, Issue 1 will enact a constitutional amendment to make permanent the temporary half-cent sales tax funding the Connecting Arkansas Program. The 10-year tax was approved by voters in 2012 and is set to expire in 2023.

The tax would provide $205 million annually for state highways and $44 million each for cities and counties. The tax does not apply to groceries, can’t be used to pay for bonds, and can only be used for road improvements. Hutchinson said cities and counties would lose 30% of their funding for roads if the tax expires.

Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor has said the tax will cost the average family $8 per month.

Lawmakers referred the proposal to voters during the 2019 legislative session as one of two parts of the governor’s highway package. The second part was approved by legislators and signed into law. It annually raised $95 million in system preservation funding and $13 million each for cities and counties through a 6-cent tax increase on diesel fuel, a 3-cent increase on gasoline, an increase in electric and hybrid vehicle registration fees, and casino revenues.

The two parts of the package potentially would provide $300 million annually for highways, 76% of which would be dedicated to system preservation and 24% for capital and congestion relief. The $300 million added to the current $440 million would give ARDOT $740 million in total construction funding.

Hutchinson said the highway taxes are part of a 2019 legislative session he called the “GOAT session,” or the “Greatest of All Time,” which also featured tax cuts, an increase in teacher pay and transformation of state government.

Hutchinson said he will fly around the state Oct. 19 at the beginning of the early voting period to promote the tax with stops in Jonesboro, Fort Smith, Northwest Arkansas, El Dorado and Little Rock.

The state chapter of the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity has formed a ballot question committee, “No Permanent Tax. No on Issue 1.”

State Director Ryan Norris previously told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Voting No on Issue 1 would lower the tax burden on Arkansas families and help hold politicians and government accountable to their original promise of returning the state sales tax back to 6.0% in 2023. Highway funding should come from taxes directly tied to highway use such as sales tax on cars, car parts and gasoline.”

Hutchinson acknowledged that some have questioned putting the tax in the Constitution, saying, “That’s raised and it actually makes some sense at a surface level because if I had my preference, I wouldn’t put this in the Constitution.”

However, he said the tax needed to be decided by a vote of the people, who voted for the original tax in 2012. The only way the Legislature can refer a matter to the voters is through a constitutional amendment. He said voters can later change the Constitution, but this would provide certainty for long-term planning.

In other poll results, the poll found that 53% of respondents plan to vote on Election Day, while 44% plan to vote earlier and 3% didn’t know or refused to answer the question. Among that 44%, 30% planned to vote in person early, 13% planned to vote absentee, and 1% had already voted.

“With that high volume of absentee votes and early voting, you have to start that campaign yesterday, which we’ve done,” he said.

Robert Moery, campaign director of Vote for Roads. Vote for Issue 1, said in an interview that 62% of respondents said Arkansas is headed in the right direction, while 26% said it is on the wrong track.

During his remarks, the governor recalled his early introduction to the pandemic by former Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith.

“Whenever COVID hit us, first of all, I never thought it’d last this long despite the fact that Dr. Smith on March 11 called me to the side and said, ‘Asa, you know this pandemic could go on for five months.’ And I didn’t believe him, but it has happened, and it continues until today,” he said.

In an interview afterwards, Hutchinson said Smith gave him a “stunning” estimate for the expected number of deaths. The governor declined to say what that estimate was.

“It was a very high number, and that catches your attention,” he said.