By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
One thing is clear from two recent polls: Arkansans want better roads, but they don’t want their taxes raised much to pay for them.
The latest poll comes from the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation, a group that supports more highway spending. It released a poll this week where 98 percent of likely voters said roads and bridges are important for economic development and job growth.
But roads and bridges have a problem. Traditionally, they’e been funded by gas and diesel fuel taxes paid at the pump. The 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax (24.4 cents for diesel) hasn’t been raised 1993, while Arkansas’ 21.5-cent gas and 22.5-cent diesel taxes have been the same since 2001. Those taxes were not indexed to inflation, so Arkansans are paying the same 39.9 cents they were paying in 2001. As in most walks of life, 39.9 cents does not buy the same now as it did then.
Adding to the problem is that vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, so drivers buy less gas and pay less in gas taxes to drive on roads becoming more expensive to construct and maintain. Drivers who can afford gas-electric hybrids pay less, while electric car drivers pay almost nothing.
The whole idea behind the gas tax is that it’s a user fee: The government service is funded by the citizen benefitting from it. But that stopped being the case in 2008, when fuel tax revenues at the federal level stopped being sufficient, and Congress started filling the gap with transfers from the general fund – the one running a $439 billion deficit in 2015.
In other words, the highways we’re driving on are being partially funded by the passengers riding in a child safety seat in back. Then when they become adults, they’ll pay to fix those worn out roads, unless they follow our example and stick their own kids with the bill.
Some highway funding supporters say the simplest fix is just to raise motor fuels taxes for now and figure out how to address the shortfall caused by increasing fuel efficiencies later.
But that’s clearly a no-go with voters. The Good Roads Foundation poll found a gas tax hike had the support of only 32 percent of respondents, with 53 percent opposed – 40 percent strongly so. When pollsters offered more detailed ideas, they found that 53 percent would support a 2-cent-per-gallon increase. After that, the numbers dropped fast: Only 32 percent would support 5 cents, and only 17 percent would support 10 cents.
Those numbers confirm the results of a poll released a couple of months ago by the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which is always against all tax increases. That poll found that while half of Arkansans believe that the condition of the state’s roads is “a major problem that deserves attention,” 64 percent oppose raising fuel taxes to address it.
What 63 percent of Arkansas do support, according to the Good Roads Foundation poll, is shifting new and used car sales tax receipts to highways. That money currently goes into general revenues, where it pays for everything else – schools, prisons, and health care services, mostly. Obviously, more money for highways means less money for those things.
A group appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to sort through all this, the Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding, is sending him a menu of options. Most members would like to increase highway funding however they can. But Hutchinson has made it clear he will support no plan that increases overall government revenues or taxes. Earlier this year, one of the members of that working group, Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, proposed a bill that would have done what those 63 percent of Arkansans said they supported: transfer car sales tax revenues to highways. At the time, Hutchinson was opposed, but money doesn’t grow on trees, and maybe something can be worked out.
Seventy percent of Arkansas highway construction dollars come from the federal government. This week, Congress did what it has not been able to do in a long time: produce a long-term highway funding bill. If passed, it will provide an additional $50 million for Arkansas each of the next five years.
To qualify for all of it, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department must find matching money somewhere – which is the problem it already has. At least it’s not a new one.