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Protect Arkansas Highway Commission, governor implores

Panel good for roads, he says by Michael R. Wickline | November 2, 2021 at 6:47 a.m.
In this Jan. 13, 2020 file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters in Little Rock. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo, File)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday urged the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation to protect the constitutional independence of the Arkansas Highway Commission and educate the public about the importance of that independence.

"I would urge you to stand up tall and protect the independence of the Arkansas Highway Commission," the Republican governor said in remarks that drew applause from the several dozen people attending the foundation's meeting in Little Rock. The Highway Commission is composed of five members, who are appointed to 10-year terms by governors.

The Arkansas Good Roads Foundation's purpose is to promote adequate funding and financing of the planning, development, construction and maintenance of a safe and efficient highway, street, road and bridge system, including transportation enhancements, according to its website.

"We've heard the stories, some of the nightmare scenarios," Hutchinson said, before recounting mismanagement and allegations of political favoritism prior to Arkansas voters approving what is known as the Mack-Blackwell Amendment in 1952.

For almost 70 years, the Mack-Blackwell Amendment -- Amendment 42 to the Arkansas Constitution -- has worked as designed and given a level of independence to the Highway Commission and the Arkansas Department of Transportation, so highway funds are managed independently and distributed equitably and based on the state's needs, he said.

"Let's be a voice for that and educate the public about that history," Hutchinson said.

Afterward, the governor said he doesn't see an immediate threat to the Highway Commission's independence, but there have been people who over the past decade have periodically brought up getting rid of the Mack-Blackwell Amendment and there is the potential for such a proposal to be made.

In an interview, state Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said the five unelected commissioners have control over hundreds of millions of dollars a year in road projects without much oversight.

He said he has proposed constitutional amendments aimed at making the Department of Transportation like other state agencies, administered by the governor and accountable to the Legislature, and to keep the Highway Commission in place.

Dotson said his proposals would make the department directly accountable to elected officials. He said he is seeking election to the Senate next year and he might resurrect his proposal.

In his remarks to the foundation, Hutchinson also urged people who are interested in the state's highway investments to continue with their efforts aimed at transparency, accountability, checks and balances and best management practices.

"With this kind of money flowing through ArDOT ... with this kind of money going into our contractors, our investment in infrastructure, the public is entitled to have an understanding of where the funds are going, how it is being spent, making sure there is proper planning on it, accountability, inspection and auditing."

Hutchinson recounted the successful campaign for voter approval of Issue 1, which is now Amendment 101 to the Arkansas Constitution, in November 2020.

Amendment 101 will permanently extend the 0.5% sales tax for highways and roads, initially approved by voters in November 2012 with a time limit under Amendment 91. The original 0.5% sales tax had been set to expire in June 2023.

Issue 1 is one part of Hutchinson's two-pronged $300 million-a-year highway plan.

State officials have projected Amendment 101 will raise about $205 million a year for the Department of Transportation for highways and about $44 million a year each for cities and counties for roads.

The other part of Hutchinson's highway plan is Act 416 of 2019.

That law has been projected by state officials to raise about $95 million a year for the Department of Transportation and about $13 million more a year each for cities and counties.

Act 416 levied a new sales tax on wholesale gasoline and diesel fuel, increased registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, and transfers at least $35 million a year in casino revenue and other state funds to the Department of Transportation.

Hutchinson told the foundation that a factor to consider in deciding which candidates for the Legislature to support in the 2022 elections is whether lawmakers voted to refer Issue 1 to voters.

The result of voter approval of Issue 1 is better roads and better long-term planning and funding, and puts Arkansas head and shoulders above surrounding states in infrastructure investment, he said. He said Issue 1 is one of the best recruiting tools that he has in recruiting industry.

The three significant events in Arkansas transportation in the past year included the Interstate 40 bridge closure at Memphis, "our worst nightmare in terms of the delivery of goods and people across the Mississippi River, a major artery for our nation," Hutchinson said.

But an inspection determined what was at fault and engineers and contractors got that fixed in a quick amount of time, he said. That reminded the entire nation of the need for investment in infrastructure, he said.

The second significant event in Arkansas transportation was the opening of the Bella Vista bypass to provide a critical four-lane highway from Kansas City, Mo., to Fort Smith and increased momentum to complete Interstate 49 from Fort Smith to Texarkana, he said.

Hutchinson said the third significant event is still happening and it's the bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress that includes funds for roads, bridges and broadband.

He said he supports the bill as chairman of the National Governors Association.

"We need that bipartisan infrastructure bill passed," the governor said.

"I'm not wild about the second part of the equation," Hutchinson said, referring to a social spending bill.

He said the bipartisan infrastructure proposal has been approved by the U.S. Senate and has broad support across America.

"Bring it to vote in the House. Pass that bill," said Hutchinson, who is a former 3rd District congressman.

The bill would provide $3.6 billion over five years in federal highway funding to Arkansas, and $278 million in bridge replacement funds over five years to help the state to avoid dangerous situations in the future, he said.

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