Scott Bennett has often had one of the most frustrating tasks at the State Capitol. Last week he announced he was leaving his job, just before there might not be a reason to be so frustrated anymore.
Bennett has been the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s director for nine years. Each legislative session he’s pleaded for more money for his department, which he says is underfunded by about $478 million annually.
That shortfall is the result of three factors, Bennett has argued. First, state and federal fuel taxes hadn’t been raised in decades and weren’t tied to inflation. Meanwhile, construction costs have risen. Finally, fuel-efficient cars are burning less gas and therefore are generating less in gas taxes. The bottom line has been that ARDOT needs money, or else it can only manage the highway system’s decline.
Many legislators have been sympathetic. Others say ARDOT is wasting too much money or not building roads in the right places (translation, my district). Some have argued that parts of the state’s really big highway system – it’s bigger than California’s – should be transferred to local control.
But even supportive legislators have had other priorities. They’ve wanted to cut taxes, not increase them for highways. Whenever Bennett or others have suggested shifting money from elsewhere in the state budget, advocates for programs that might be affected have thrown a fit. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has always had bigger things on his plate.
Bennett has not gone away empty-handed. Legislators referred to voters an interstate bond issue in 2011 and the Connecting Arkansas Program in 2012. Both passed. The $1.8 billion CAP, which was financed by a 10-year, half-cent sales tax, is widening and improving 200 miles of roadways, but it expires next year. The tax also provides $43 million each to cities and counties annually. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislators also found money in 2016 so the state would be eligible for federal grants.
But it’s never been enough – until maybe now.
In 2019, legislators and Hutchinson increased highway funding by $95 million by increasing fuel taxes and dedicating casino revenues to highways. Legislators also referred to voters a permanent extension of the half-cent sales tax. If Issue 1 passes in November, it will provide $205 million annually.
That means ARDOT would have $300 million annually it didn’t have before. That’s not quite $478 million, but it would take care of what we have and even build more, rather than manage the decline. Maybe Congress will someday pass a highway program that funds the long-awaited I-49 down the state’s western edge and I-69 across south Arkansas.
So far, Issue 1 appears to be in good shape. Hutchinson says it’s his top priority this election. He’s touted a poll finding 62 percent of voters support it – more than the 58 percent who voted for the tax in 2012.
Issue 1’s passage would let Bennett ride off into the sunset having secured the department’s finances. To help make that happen, he would have spent part of this year campaigning for it – well, actually, legally he would have been “educating the public.” But it’s a campaign.
Instead, on Wednesday he abruptly announced his retirement effective March 20. He’s accepted a soon-to-be-revealed private sector job that no doubt pays better and does not require getting frustrated before the Legislature.
Given the circumstances, the Highway Commission wasted no time replacing him. The next day, it promoted the deputy director, Lori Tudor, who’ll be the department’s first female director. They’re both engineers, but she started as a clerk typist before going back to college. Maybe this column should have been about her.
I asked Bennett about his timing before he spoke about Issue 1 at a public meeting in Hot Springs. He said ARDOT has accomplished much during his nine years, it’s in good hands, and there’s no perfect time to leave because there’s always another next big thing. He then stood behind the podium and educated the public about Issue 1.
If it passes, it will be under Tudor’s watch, and she’ll deserve a share of the credit because she’s been beside Bennett as they pleaded for more funding. Then she’ll be the one speaking before legislative committees, which will be a lot less frustrating.