Gov. Asa Hutchinson has shared a lot of numbers with the state since the beginning of March – many of them grim ones. I’m sure he much preferred sharing these Wednesday: 69 percent and 18 percent.
The 69 percent is the percentage of 800 likely voters who said in a poll conducted Sept. 19-21 that they support Issue 1. That’s the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would make permanent a half-cent sales tax for state highways, county roads and city streets. The 18 percent is the percentage of “no” voters.
More specifically, 44 percent said they were “definitely for” the tax, while 25 percent said they were “probably for” it. Ten percent were “definitely against” it, while 8 percent were “probably against” it. Another 13 percent were undecided. Similar numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents supported it, and it had support across all media markets. In the Jonesboro market, 81 percent were for it.
Those are good numbers for him at this stage of the election – particularly that 44 percent. If those numbers hold, he’ll need only a fraction of everyone else who wasn’t “definitely against” it.
I’d be surprised if this fails, but many things have surprised me the past few election cycles.
The governor spent years laying the groundwork for his highway program. Under his leadership, lawmakers in 2019 advanced its two major parts.
One was Issue I, which would permanently continue the 10-year half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2012 for the road-building Connecting Arkansas Program.
The tax would provide $205 million annually for state highways and $87 million split between cities and counties. It would not apply to groceries. The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) says the tax costs the average family $8 a month. If Issue 1 fails, cities and counties would lose nearly 30 percent of their current road budgets. Director Lorie Tudor says ARDOT would have to “manage the decline” of the highway system.
Legislators also last year raised $95 million for highways 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.
ARDOT officials have spent years telling legislators of their increasing funding needs. Highways traditionally have been funded through “user fees” – mostly fuel taxes. However, that’s a declining revenue source in a country where reducing fuel use is a national priority. Increasing numbers of cars and trucks are being driven on congested highways that mostly were built decades ago and are becoming more expensive to repair. Meanwhile, Arkansas can’t count on more money coming from debt-ridden, dysfunctional Washington, D.C.
The governor is being supported by a coalition of powerful business groups that has raised more than $2 million as of Aug. 31. The first TV ad, which dropped the day after Labor Day, tied Issue 1 to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying highways kept Arkansans supplied when everything was shutting down.
Leading the other side of the argument is a coalition that includes both conservative and liberal organizations. It includes the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national organization that advocates for smaller government; Arkansas Community Organizations, which advocates for lower-income Arkansas; environmental groups and others. The coalition will not have $2 million to spend on its efforts, but it does have a strong grassroots network.
One argument against the tax would be, well, it’s a tax, and one that was sold to Arkansans 10 years ago as a temporary one. There’s always the argument that families must figure out how to live on less, and so should government. Also, it’s a constitutional amendment, which means it’s more or less permanent. Even Hutchinson acknowledged in his remarks to the Good Roads Foundation that such a mechanism isn’t his preference, but it was necessary in this case.
Campaigning during a pandemic has some challenges, but Hutchinson intends to do so with a fly-around to various cities Oct. 19 as early voting begins.
He can’t afford to wait longer – and neither can anyone else with an interest in this or anything on the ballot. The poll also found that 44 percent plan to vote before Election Day, and 1 percent have already voted.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at brawner email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.