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Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton will thoughtfully and emphatically explain why the state needs to adopt a 10-cent fuel tax increase to support highway infrastructure improvements. She'll run through the lack of other realistic funding options and outline why her organization supports the tax, even if it winds up only levied on commercial drivers and not the rest of us.

Newton will follow this by telling you she is not, however, advocating for a gas tax increase.

Publicly supportive of? Yes.

Advocating? No.

If, like me, you're unclear on what exactly the distinction is, read what Newton has to say about it:

"Our policy is, we prefer fuel taxes. A tax on gas and diesel or either is the preferred funding for highways. But in order to have a functioning relationship with the people who are in leadership in the state, we are not asking for that. We'll educate people on why we believe a fuel tax is the best option. We are not asking the Legislature to take action."

Or put in a way that Newton is too nice to: Pushing the issue on legislators who have no interest in passing a tax and are interested in re-election isn't worth the effort or political capital.

Currently highway needs are being funded -- woefully underfunded, more accurately -- by a tax of 21.5 cents per gallon on gasoline and 22.5 cents per gallon on diesel. Raising the tax 10 cents would generate an additional $200 million for highways, county roads and city streets, according to the Arkansas Trucking Association.

But putting pressure on lawmakers to increase those numbers, then watching a bill fail to pass or get the governor's signature, would be less than ideal for trucking advocates.

"Everything just gets doubly hard from there," Newton said.

So what's with the public push Newton is making to educate civic clubs and others on the fuel tax? Why walk that line of publicly supporting, but not exactly advocating for it?

Raising awareness of funding challenges and infrastructure needs by business leaders and other constituents could lead to public pressure for a long-term solution.

It is possible the Legislature could punt the decision of levying a fuel tax increase to the voters. Where that gets complicated is that legislators can't refer anything to the voters that it can do itself.

So it would take a fuel tax designed as a bond issue to get it in front of the state's voters.

Should the issue go to the voters, the task becomes educating 3 million Arkansans, rather than a handful of business leaders or 135 legislators.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a law in May that provides a bump to the fund through state surpluses and state treasury investment earnings. Through the plan the state will be eligible for an additional $200 million in federal highway funding.

Fighting over budget scraps with education, health care and other important public services is a no-win proposition, though.

There must be some other option, right?

Not really.

A task force on highway funding options was assembled last year. Newton, of course, was among those asked by Hutchinson to participate. At the time, the task force and public were told every option was on the table.

Possibilities -- 12 of them -- ranged from the fuel tax increase, toll roads, increased licensing and registration fees and an ongoing revenue transfer from the state to the highway fund. One by one they were eliminated.

Toll roads, for example, even if allowed by the federal government in Arkansas, would carry up-front and administrative costs that eat up about 30 percent of the money generated. Ultimately it was determined that a transfer of money and review of how money is currently being spent were the only answers.

That isn't much of a long-term solution.

So you have Newton, the Arkansas Trucking Association and company owners like Maverick Transportation's Steve Williams publicly volunteering their industry to pay more in fuel taxes.

Fuel taxes in Arkansas increased 15 percent in 1993, but nothing since. Vehicles are more efficient, so consumers are using less fuel despite driving more miles and causing more damage to roads and bridges.

Keep in mind that the trucking industry -- which employs one of every 11 working people in Arkansas -- is already paying 44 percent of the taxes, but only traveling 14 percent of the miles. Raising fuel rates only on commercial driving companies wouldn't be particularly fair considering what they pay already.

Fairness isn't what Newton is seeking. She's more interested in a solution.

"We have to have these conversations and we're not asking for anything the industry isn't willing to do. On its own," Newton said. "Transportation doesn't garner a wide interest from a wide base of legislators. Not enough legislators are invested in it and educated on how it all works."

If you have a tip, call Chris Bahn at (501) 378-3518 or email him at cbahn@arkansasonline.com

SundayMonday Business on 08/07/2016

Print Headline: State trucking leader neither opposes nor advocates raising fuel taxes

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