If it comes to it, Brummett reports, UCA’s Lu Hardin will side with Gov. Beebe, not Sheffield Nelson, on the gas severance tax. Hardin is confident Beebe will look after higher education, so much so that he’ll defer to Beebe’s wishes should he continue to insist on using this money for highways.
We look to our guidance on this issue from Ernie Dumas, who’s been covering the Arkansas Capitol for four decades. He explains in an editorial for the Leader why Nelson’s approach is preferable to Beebe’s. He objects to decoupling highway support from user taxes and notes that education still suffers in comparison here with highway maintenance. Education is of immensely greater benefit to our citizens than state subsidy of a land bridge for behemoth trucks that pound the roads to rubble.
Nevertheless, Arkansas’ highway system, though not the best, ranks far better in comparison with other states than does its public schools, or for that matter its colleges, its health care or its services to the elderly and needy. We have fewer college graduates in our workforce than any other state. If we are truly interested in economic development, as Nelson points out, that has to be a larger factor than the condition of our highways.
It is true, as Beebe says, that motor-fuel tax receipts are not climbing as fast as road construction costs in spite of the fast-rising number of vehicles on the roads. Increasing fuel efficiency in new vehicles means that people are buying less fuel per mile traveled, which means that they are paying fewer taxes per trip. Our motor-fuel taxes are tied to volume, not to price. We do not have a sales tax on gasoline or diesel. So people are paying less in taxes per trip, and a steadily declining share of what we spend on traveling are going to maintain and improve the roads.
When the state needs to undertake a major highway-building program, road-user taxes are still the most prudent way to do it.