JUDGE MORGAN “CHIP” WELCH

Circuit Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch ruled today against the plaintiffs in a lawsuit contending that the Arkansas Department of Transportation couldn’t spend money on freeway projects wider than four lanes.

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Taxpayers had filed an illegal exaction suit on spending of highway money raised by a sales tax because Amendment 91 referred to spending on “four-lane” highways.

The state argued that the amendment could be interpreted more broadly, specifically for I-30 and I-630 freeway projects of six lanes and more in the Little Rock area.

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Welch conducted a trial at which both sides were allowed to introduce all information on the meaning of the ballot title and whether it could cover more than strictly four-lane highways. His key conclusion.

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His opinion said the amendment title was ambiguous. But he said there was sufficient evidence of legislative intent to include systems that already had more than four lanes in the interest of network connectivity. He said the intent was to provide adequate highway funding and that intent “controls” over any reading of specific terms, such as four-lane highway, in the amendment.

He said plaintiffs had failed to prove the tax was used for an unauthorized purpose and dismissed the suit.

No comment yet from the plaintiffs. The state will be happy, naturally.

This suit, note, has not relationship to separate litigation in federal court challenging the sufficiency of the environmental study of the impact of the billion-dollar 30 Crossing widening of Interstate 30 through Little Rock. Also still on appeal is a federal judge’s refusal to halt work on the Interstate 630 widening project now underway.

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Here’s the full opinion.