By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr. outlined a $2.8 billion highway program Thursday to build four-lane roads connecting every area of the state and maintain existing highways.
The plan includes two proposals, one to raise the state diesel tax by 5 cents a gallon and one to impose a temporary half-cent sales tax.
Moore, D-Arkansas City, briefed reporters on his proposal after meeting with Gov. Mike Beebe and others. Leaving the meeting, Beebe said the idea sounded like something he could support but he would have to examine the specifics.
“It’s encouraging,” the governor said.
Moore said legislators will be asked to refer both tax increases to voters. If the Legislature approves, the diesel tax increase would go to voters in a special election next year and the sales tax increase would be on the November 2012 general election ballot.
The diesel tax would increase the tax from 4 cents to 9 cents per gallon and would increase an existing bond program from $575 million to about $1 billion for highway maintenance.
The sales tax would sunset after 10 years and would fund a $1.8 billion bond program to fund a five-year highway construction project.
Also, 1 cent of the current gasoline tax would be diverted to create a city street aid program under the constitutional amendment. That would be on top of the usual 30 percent share that goes to cities and counties.
The speaker said the plan has the support of the Arkansas Highway Commission, the Arkansas Trucking Association, the Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties. He said the proposal is based on recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highway Finance.
Moore predicted that “with agreement of the major players, we will be able to get the support in the Legislature that we need and hopefully be able to carry that support to the people and bring about a substantial rejuvenization and addition to our highway program that will be of immense benefit, not only to the safety of the people of Arkansas but certainly economic growth.”
Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, has filed a shell bill for the constitutional amendment and said he plans to add details next week. Barnett is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission.
Moore said he plans to file a bill next week to refer to the people a vote on raising the diesel tax.
Moore had said previously he wanted to build support for passing a tax increase in the Legislature, something that Beebe and other legislators said was unlikely to happen. On Thursday, Moore said the proposal to refer tax increases to voters “is the one that I believe we can get done.”
“We not only have found some extremely valuable funding to take care of the needs that we have now and expand our highway system, but effectively we buy us about 10 years to continue to look for (ways to address) a problem that is still not going away.”
Highway Commission Chairman Madison Murphy said the proposal will not solve Arkansas’ “systemically flawed funding system” for highways, but he praised Moore for providing leadership on the issue.
“Without the speaker’s leadership we would still be floundering around in disparate camps trying to figure out what to do about our infrastructure in Arkansas,” Murphy said.
Currently, Arkansas depends on increasingly flat fuel tax revenue to fund highway construction. Highway officials estimate $19 billion in highway needs over the next decade and anticipated revenue of about $4 billion.