The committee opposing the new permanent half-cent highway sales tax proposed in Issue 1 is making hay from the Arkansas Supreme Court decision Thursday that said an existing temporary highway sales tax could not be used on the billion-dollar Interstate 30 project in Little Rock because that money was dedicated to building four-lane highways, not the expansion of an existing freeway to 10 lanes.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation had planned on using more than $400 million from the temporary tax on the seven-mile I-30 widening. And it hopes to get more money from the passage of Issue One. If the issue doesn’t pass, it had said the project could still be built, but in stages. But Issue 1 would only provide $200 million a year for all state highway spending. The state has another money problem thanks to Thursday’s ruling — the almost $90 million spent on a completed I-630 widening project. The court said use of the temporary sales tax on that project was also illegal.
Here’s what the No on 1 committee had to say in a statement by chair Ryan Norris:
“This ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court shows ArDOT has been misusing taxpayer dollars to fund large projects in Little Rock for years. ArDOT is currently under audit for wasteful spending and the court’s decision validates how unaccountable the transportation department has become by taking funds that should have gone to road maintenance and 4-lane highways across the state as it had promised the voters in 2012. Voting no on Issue 1 would bring some accountability back to the people and the people’s representatives.”
Vice-Chair Joshua Silverstein said:
“Yesterday, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that ArDOT may not use revenue from the existing sales tax to pay for the I-30 Crossing project, as it planned to do (and 7-0 that ArDOT inappropriately used such sales tax revenue for the I-630 widening). Isn’t it clear that ARDOT does not deserve another penny until the agency is brought under appropriate democratic controls? This is yet more compelling evidence that all Arkansans should vote against Issue 1.
“Because of the Arkansas Supreme Court decision, of the money to be raised by Issue 1 and used for new construction, ArDOT will have to spend roughly 16 years of that money to complete I-30. It is now beyond dispute that the impact of Issue 1 will be to take money from citizens from across this state and spend it all on a single 7 mile stretch in Little Rock and North Little Rock — a project that all objective experts recognize is a breathtaking waste of money. That is quite simply absurd.
“And another unanswered question is how ArDOT will repay the 4-Lane Highway Fund for the illegally funded widening of Interstate 630 west of University Avenue. ArDOT owes voters an explanation on this as well,” Silverstein concluded.
Downtown Neighborhood Association President Greg Henderson said:
“This ruling confirms what we in the Downtown Neighborhood Association have known. The funds are being misused for years. Even more it is taking money away from rural areas of Arkansas to build projects in metropolitan areas that are overwhelmingly opposed by our residents. This is important not just for Little Rock, but for the entire state because rural areas will finally get the infrastructure improvements that they need and were promised to them. It also highlights even more the need to oppose Issue 1, because it removes the restrictions against urban development. ArDOT has shown they will continue to develop metropolitan freeways and ignore the needs of rural Arkansas when given a chance.”
Amen to all that. Plus, the audit should reveal an enormous pile of cash available to the highway department without a further tax increase. As I’ve reported before Governor Hutchinson and the legislature have pumped huge sums into the department since 2017 — a gas tax increase, a cut of gambling revenue, set asides of general revenue for highway use. That amount is already providing an additional $180 million a year.
Voters should defeat Issue 1 and put fiscal control in the hands of the people they elected, not a handful of highway commissioners.