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It is official. The Arkansas Highway Commission will pursue a 2018 ballot initiative to raise more money for highways.

Commissioners made that call last week, although they have decided little else about just what they might ask voters to approve.

The five-member commission voted unanimously to pursue a vote, which will require the circulation of petitions and gathering signatures to place the issue on the 2018 ballot.

Still to be decided is whether the commission might propose an initiated act or a constitutional amendment. Nor has the commission determined the precise source of funding, although they've talked about trying to raise up to $400 million annually.

That's a lot of money, twice as much as would have been produced by a failed effort earlier this year to convince the Legislature to authorize a ballot question for additional funding.

It was that failure in the Legislature that prompted the commission's decision to appeal directly to voters -- to road users -- for more money.

State Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, had sponsored a proposal that, with voter approval, would have produced an estimated $200 million a year for highways. It was for a bond issue to be funded by a 6.5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel prices.

Douglas was there last week when the highway commissioners agreed to take an alternative to voters.

"We proved we can't do it through the legislative process so far with the political situation we're in," Douglas said. "It's got to be a ballot initiative.

The "political situation we're in" is the no-tax mood of conservative lawmakers. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and their grip has increased in each passing election in recent times.

This year's failure was the second attempt to get legislative approval of a highway package. A 2015 plan was considerably more ambitious, but lawmakers soundly rejected it.

This year's plan was scaled back but still failed miserably. Lawmakers weren't even willing to send the question to voters.

The question for highway commissioners is whether these nay-saying lawmakers reflect the mood of the electorate not to raise taxes, or whether voters can be persuaded to reach into their pocketbooks when their legislators won't.

Clearly, the commissioners are persuaded they might make the case for higher taxes and more highway spending. Or at least they're convinced they have to try.

There are some obvious supporters for any such plan, no matter what form the proposal might eventually take.

Start with the people in the road-building industry, who see the prospect of work for which they can compete if the highway department has more money to spend.

A lot of their names show up in the membership of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation, the nonprofit organization of people and businesses that will bankroll a petition drive and campaign to pass a highway package.

The petition drive alone is expected to cost $1 million or more. The highway commission can't legally fund the petition drive or the campaign, so private funding must come from the commission's friends in the industry and in the cities and counties that would benefit from better roads.

A long-established formula for sharing revenue with cities and counties helps bring mayors and city council members, county judges and quorum courts on board for such proposals.

Any new proposal for highway funding would send just 70 percent of the money to the state government. The rest will go to local governments. Cities collectively would get 15 percent and counties 15 percent. How much each city or county would get is determined by yet other long-standing formulae.

These are natural alliances that are just part and parcel of any road-funding discussion.

But are they strong enough to buck whatever forces guided those recalcitrant legislators? Can the same voters who elected those lawmakers really be talked into taxing themselves more for highways?

The timeline proposed last week calls for the commission to finalize details on its proposal by October. Proposed ballot language needs to go to the state attorney general's office by January with signed petitions due next July to qualify for the November ballot.

But it is what happens between now and this October that may matter most to the proposal's ultimate success or failure.

Clearly, by talking about an increase of possibly $400 million a year in funding, the commission is thinking about a deep dive into taxpayers' pockets or a major shuffle of existing revenue from other uses to highways.

Either might prove a hard sell to voters, each path sure to trigger opposition campaigns.

Commissioners might be better served by proposing something a bit more conservative.

Scott Bennett, director of the highway Department, seemed to be totally aware of the gamble at stake in the decision-making to be done in these coming months.

"We have to try to develop the measure that is the right one," he told the commission. "And the right one is, partly, the one we believe would pass. And we don't know what that is yet."

If what they propose can't pass, all the time and effort they put in it will be wasted.

Commentary on 06/14/2017

Print Headline: Rough road ahead

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