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Gov. Asa Hutchinson found the votes in the Arkansas Legislature this year to pass a major road-funding program.

That was a noteworthy accomplishment, although the work isn't quite done.

The question now is whether he and other highway supporters can successfully carry the case to Arkansas voters.

A significant part of Hutchinson's plan for pumping more money into the state's highways, county roads and city streets requires voter approval.

More than two out of every three dollars in the $300 million funding package are at stake in the vote, which will come in the 2020 general election.

Voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment to extend a half-cent sales tax for roads first approved in 2012. The current sales tax rate collected by the state is 6.5 percent, including the half-cent road tax.

The extension is expected to generate close to $206 million a year for state highways and another $44 million a year for the state's cities and counties.

The rest of the money in the governor's program would come from legislatively approved increases in fuel taxes and registration fees and reallocation of projected tax receipts from casinos.

Altogether, those sources should produce $95 million annually in new money for the state Highway and Transportation Department.

Under the enabling legislation (Act 416), the money must be used for road and bridge maintenance projects, which officials promise to spread around the state.

The full funding impact would be five years away, although Arkansans will begin paying higher fuel taxes in October.

The Legislature created an excise tax on the wholesale price of gasoline and diesel that will add the equivalent of 3 cents per gallon to the gas tax and six cents per gallon to the diesel tax. It is expected to generate $58 million more a year for state highways and about $13 million a year each for cities and counties.

Lawmakers also imposed additional registration fees of $100 and $300, respectively, for hybrid and electric vehicles. The fees should raise just under $2 million a year.

More new road money would come from the Legislature's dedication of $35 million in state casino tax revenue to highways.

The casino money will be generated from expansion of two existing casinos and the addition of one or two more allowed by the state's adoption of a casino gaming amendment in 2018.

Still, all those sources don't hold a candle to the money that could come from permanent extension of the half-cent sales tax -- the one that voters must directly approve in 2020 if it is to be collected.

That issue passed in 2012 with more than 58 percent of the vote, passing in all but seven of the state's 75 counties.

The money it generated was targeted to pay for a four-lane highway system statewide. Voters agreed to use the state's portion to secure general obligation bonds of up to $1.3 billion to build and improve four-lane highways.

Voters were told the bonds should be paid off within 10 years and that the tax would then end.

The tax won't end, if voters agree to the constitutional amendment passed by lawmakers as House Joint Resolution 1018, referring the issue to the 2020 ballot.

In fact, the half-cent sales tax would become permanent.

How hard a sell will that be?

For years Arkansans, at least in parts of the state, have been demanding better roads.

State officials have said over and over how much work is needed for upkeep and for improvements and how their revenues had flattened out. But time and again the state's tax-leery, conservative Legislature couldn't agree on how to raise the money.

Now, at the urging of this Republican governor, the Legislature has agreed to a plan.

They actually passed legislation to provide some of the money themselves. But voters must agree to levy the rest.

Commentary on 05/15/2019

Print Headline: The road ahead

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