A plan to ask voters to make permanent a half-percent sales tax for highways made it out of a House committee Wednesday, the same day that lawmakers spent hours debating what other constitutional changes they want to place on the ballot.
Under the state constitution, lawmakers can refer up to three constitutional amendments to the voters in the next general election. In becoming the first such amendment to make it out of committee, the sales-tax plan in House Joint Resolution 1018 effectively puts pressure on the more than 30 other proposals to gather a wide base of support.
Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee that recommended HJR1018 Wednesday morning, said that if the half-percent sales-tax proposal is referred to the 2020 ballot, then each chamber will likely get its pick of another amendment proposal to fill the remaining two slots. Both the House and Senate must approve the proposals.
"You might say that the one today was almost like a joint one," Tosh said.
The tax is a key point of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's $417.5 million-a-year highway and roads plan. An estimated $294 million of that annual funding is expected to come from the half-percent sales tax, with 30 percent going toward cities and counties. The tax is already in effect -- it was set in a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2012, but it expires in 2023.
Earlier Wednesday morning, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee convened for its second meeting to discuss amendment proposals. Committee members considered offerings on the state's initiative and referendum process and on term limits.
Later, on the other side of the Capitol, the House state agencies committee met again Wednesday afternoon to discuss amendment proposals.
Neither committee acted on amendment proposals, other than the one on the highway sales tax.
In a statement, Hutchinson called the committee's vote in favor of a sales-tax referral "an important step in our overall transportation plan."
"It would be wrong to deny the people the final say-so on the sales tax that the voters approved, but that is set to expire," the governor said. "I am thankful the Committee voted by a substantial margin to adopt this amendment."
The half-percent sales tax amendment has 35 sponsors in the House and Senate. It can be considered by the full House early next week and then would go to the Senate if approved. The rest of the governor's highway plan is in a bill to be considered by the House today.
In the House committee's morning meeting, the sales-tax plan faced opposition from several residents who complained that taxes are already too high. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by the Koch brothers, also spoke against the proposal.
Representatives for other business groups, including the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Trucking Association, spoke for the amendment, as did the director of the Arkansas Association of Counties.
Former Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, who in 2011 sponsored the original measure to refer the half-percent sales tax for highways to voters in 2012, said he opposes making the tax permanent.
"That wasn't the original commitment," he said in a telephone interview. He did not speak at the committee meeting.
"I promised the citizens of Arkansas it would have a sunset on it, it would be a 10-year sales tax and it would come off," said Barnett, who also is a former highway commissioner. "I'm not an elected official. I'm not there to reinforce my position."
Barnett said he realizes that there are some different lawmakers and a different governor than when he served in the House from 2009 to early 2015. If the Legislature refers the current half-percent proposal to the ballot, he said, he'll "most likely" vote against the proposal.
In 2011, Barnett sponsored House Joint Resolution 1001, which was the constitutional amendment to impose a half-percent sales tax for highways for a 10-year period.
The Senate voted 22-10 and the House voted 62-25 to refer HJR1001 to voters in the 2012 general election, according to the General Assembly's website. In the election, 58.2 percent of the voters approved it and 41.8 percent of the voters cast their ballots against it, according to the secretary of state's website.
On Wednesday, the 20-member House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee approved HJR1018 by a split vote. At least three Republicans -- Reps. Jim Dotson of Bentonville, John Payton of Wilburn and Clint Penzo of Springdale -- said they opposed the tax.
After a House floor session Wednesday afternoon, the House committee again met to consider House Joint Resolution 1008, which proposes a number of changes to the process of getting a proposed constitutional amendment or initiated act on the ballot.
The amendment, proposed by Rep. DeAnne Vaught, R-Horatio, and Sen. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, would make it more difficult for lawmakers and residents to put forward constitutional amendments. Pitsch's companion resolution was considered in the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday morning.
Several men -- Tom Steele, Mac Faulkner and Travis Porter -- spoke out against the Vaught/Pitsch amendment at committee meetings in the morning and afternoon.
"It's very, very difficult today for people to get something on the ballot," Steele said. "It's almost impossible."
Steele led the effort to collect signatures to place a term-limits amendment on the ballot in 2018, only to have the Arkansas Supreme Court invalidate many of the signatures gathered, blocking the amendment from a vote. Steele said he also opposed an effort being pushed lawmakers to place stricter term limits on the ballot in 2020, with the caveat that voters would no longer be allowed to propose lowering term limits in the future through the initiative process.
That proposal, being pushed by Dotson and Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would set term limits at 12 years starting in 2021, with the ability for lawmakers to renew their eligibility after sitting out of the Legislature for four years. The current constitution sets a hard 16-year term limit for lawmakers.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 02/28/2019
Print Headline: Ballot issue on tax for Arkansas roads gains panel's nod