FAYETTEVILLE -- A state highway program backed by the governor and described as vital by local leaders drew little support from Republican candidates in contested legislative races in Northwest Arkansas.
The candidates responded to a questionnaire from the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The candidates are all on the Nov. 3 general election ballot and seek to represent districts that include at least some part of Benton or Washington counties. All but three of the 26 candidates participated.
The question about highways was: "Do you support the highway tax on the November ballot? If it fails, what do you think the region should do to fund roads?"
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, supports the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot, put there by the Legislature. Issue 1 would permanently extend the half-percent sales tax for highways and roads. That tax was initially approved by voters in 2012 for a 10-year period.
Two of the 11 Republican candidates responding to the questionnaire fully supported the proposal. Five opposed it. Four more said the issue was up to voters now, with two of those four expressing concern about putting a sales tax in the state constitution.
On the other side of the partisan line, eight of the 12 Democrats responding support the highway proposal. One said a road program is vital, but had reservations about this plan. One said she hadn't reached a decision. Two oppose it.
City and county street and road departments receive a portion of the money raised by the soon-to-lapse 2012 tax. Those local governments would receive the same share under the new proposal.
According to figures compiled by the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, Springdale will lose $1.6 million a year from its street budget without the half-cent tax. Fayetteville will lose $1.7 million, Bentonville $822,000 and Rogers $1.3 million.
Benton and Washington counties would lose about $5.6 million each according to chamber figures. Local chambers, the Northwest Arkansas Council regional group, county judges and mayors have all declared support.
Opponents include the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group.
The permanent tax proposed in Issue 1 would go into the Arkansas Constitution, where it would not be subject to change by the Legislature. This aspect turned out to be the main objection cited by candidates who oppose the measure.
"The state constitution is not the place for an unchangeable sales tax to be," said Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville. "The Legislature, elected by the people every two years, should be held accountable to enact or reduce taxes as needs change. There are surpluses almost every year, that, in addition to allocating road-user generated revenue from sales tax on tires, car batteries, etc., should go to cover the ongoing cost of roads and that can be done without raising taxes."
Dotson's Democratic opponent in House District 93 is Daisy Bonilla.
"Yes, I agree with Gov. Hutchinson and will vote for the highway tax," she said. "We need infrastructure to support the economy and everyday life. It will cost us more in the long run to not maintain our roads, and we need lawmakers to work across the aisle and at every level of government to make sure we're making smart spending decisions on transportation and not wasting money on projects that will have to be redone."
Bonilla proposed repealing recent tax cuts to raise the money needed for roads if the sales tax fails in the November vote.
Neither candidate in the House District 96 race in Rogers supports the proposal.
District 96 Republican nominee Josh Bryant is against the tax. The 2012 proposal only got approval in the Legislature when its life span was limited to 10 years, he said.
Jon Comstock, Democratic District 96 candidate, cited the same objection to putting a tax in the state constitution made by others.
"I feel like the role of the Legislature is to make these funding choices," Comstock said. "I do not believe it is healthy to 'bake into' a constitution a tax rate and the sole purpose that the funds may be used for -- even as worthy of a need as highways."
More money for roads is one of the nnorthwest region's most urgent needs, proposal supporters said.
"As a legislator, I receive more calls, emails and text messages regarding road issues than any other," said Rep. Carlene Fite, R-Van Buren and the incumbent in House District 80. "Good roads are not only vital to our economy, but it's a matter of safety, too. It's an essential part of our daily lives, and we must take care of our highways, roads, and bridges."
Lou Reed Sharp is Fite's Democratic challenger. She also supports the tax.
"If it fails, and we don't have the budget to finance the highways, I think we ought to look at repealing the tax cut for the wealthiest 5% of Arkansans to finance the roads," she said. She referred to a tax cut passed in 2019 and scheduled to take full effect in January, reducing the tax rate for the top income bracket. The January reduction will drop the top-tier state income tax bracket from 6.6% to 5.9%.
Rep. David Whitaker of Fayetteville is an officer in the House Democratic delegation and is a former minority leader. He voiced strong support for the highway proposal. The Legislature has debated money for highways for years, he said. Much of his support for the November measure derives from seeing so many other options that are worse, he said.
"Without the dedicated highway sales tax, we may see a renewed effort to begin tapping into our general revenues for the funding," Whitaker said. "I have long resisted this, because highway funding would be competing directly with our public schools and higher education for already precious and scarce resources."
Brian Hester, Whitaker's Republican challenger, doesn't support the sales tax being written into the constitution.
"We should find ways to be more efficient in our government to reduce spending, providing for more available funds for things like roads and education," he said.
The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent a questionnaire to the 26 legislative candidates in our region in contested races. A questionnaire was chosen because of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions on gatherings curtail the usual sources of information to voters such as debates, forums and “meet the candidate” events.
This is the fourth of six stories on their answers.
The following are the complete answers given by candidates for Arkansas Senate and House to the following question:
“Do you support the highway tax on the November ballot? If it fails, what do you think the region should do to fund roads?”
An asterisk (*) by the candidate’s name signifies an incumbent.
Charlene Fite (R)* — “I support the highway plan. As a legislator, I receive more calls, emails and text messages regarding road issues than any other. Good roads are not only vital to our economy, but it’s a matter of safety, too. It’s an essential part of our daily lives, and we must take care of our highways, roads sand bridges.”
Lou Reed Sharp (D) — “Yes, I support the extension of the highway tax on the November ballot. If it fails, and we don’t have the budget to finance the highways, I think we ought to look at repealing the tax cut for the wealthiest 5% of Arkansans to finance the roads.”
David Whitaker (D)*— “I fully support the extension of the half-cent sales tax on the November ballot. Highway maintenance and improvement are crucial to our transportation infrastructure, which in turn fuels economic expansion. Literally everything from groceries to fuel to medicines comes to us over our highways. As we transition to newer, more sustainable modes of transportation, our highway system will remain a vital part of the infrastructure for some time to come. This is a worthy investment.
“If it fails, our alternatives are limited and less desirable. Many ideas have been floated in the years it has taken to cobble together the highway funding compromise. Without the dedicated highway sales tax, we may see a renewed effort to begin tapping into our general revenues for the funding. I have long resisted this, because highway funding would be competing directly with our public schools and higher education for already precious and scarce resources.”
Brian Hester (R) — “I do not support the sales tax being written into the constitution. We should find ways to be more efficient in our government to reduce spending, providing for more available funds for things like roads and education.”
Nicole Clowney (D)* — “Yes, I support the highway tax. Serving in the Legislature with colleagues from all across the state has really opened my eyes to how many Arkansas communities are hurting because of crumbling roads. We need a dedicated revenue stream like the one the highway tax will provide. If it fails, my biggest concern is that the next step will be to look to the general revenue funds to fill the gaps, which means that money we should be spending on other priorities will no longer be available.”
John La Tour (R) — “I believe the Arkansas Constitution is no place for a sales tax. Any such sales tax should have a two-year sunset clause for true accountability.”
Robin Lundstrum (R)* — “This highway proposal is now up to Arkansas voters. If it passes, counties and cities will be able to maintain our local streets and highways. If voters decide they do not want to keep this tax, I will work with other conservative legislators to propose a solution that provides adequate highway funding. I am concerned we are putting a tax into the Arkansas Constitution and binding future legislatures, which is unprecedented. Other proposals, sadly, were not given the opportunity to be vetted. We have a very large budget in Arkansas and could set aside additional funds every year into the Highway Trust fund IF we can make cuts needed just like families do when their budget needs adjusting. We choose not to. We currently fund our highway program at $1,781,178,170. (All Highway Dept. revenue as of FY2018). Highways will always need funding, and if we make this a priority in our budget, we can set aside the needed funds. We have instead chosen to expand government more and at some point we simply cannot do everything for everyone. Growing government on the backs of taxpayers is not a good, long-range plan. The decision is now in the voter’s hands, and I will follow their lead.”
Michael Bennett-Spears (D) — “Like Governor Hutchinson, I support the highway tax. Our roads and highway systems are the heart of the economy in Arkansas. From Fortune 500s to local small businesses, it’s our roads that get us there. We must ensure that our roadways are maintained and updated, both for the safety of Arkansans and the continued prosperity of our economy.
“I’m asking the voters to support this funding, but if it fails, then it will be imperative that we repeal the tax cut for the wealthiest Arkansans, those making over $456,000 a year.”
Clint Penzo (R)* — “I support an increase on highway spending to improve our current highway quality and to develop new infrastructure, but I do not support the tax on the November ballot. Tax legislation belongs in statute and not in the Arkansas Constitution. During the last legislative session, I sponsored HB 1888 and HB 1889, which would have provided increased revenue for highways without raising taxes. If the highway tax increase doesn’t pass in November, I plan to file both of my bills in January.”
Hawley Woods (D) — “I don’t feel I know enough about that issue to make a statement. I need to do more research on that topic.”
Megan Godfrey (D)* — “Yes. Safe roads and bridges are vital for public safety, families and business in our community. I join the governor, a legislative majority, key transportation leaders, businesses and drivers all across Northwest Arkansas in supporting this infrastructure investment. The measure on the November ballot neither raises taxes nor dips into the state’s general revenue. It is a balanced and necessary approach. If it does not pass, we will have to find this desperately needed funding some other way, and further delays will only make the problems worse.”
Jed Duggar (R) — “Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. We need to make sure our roads keep up with our growth. We desperately need to finish the 612 Bypass to free up Highway 412. I am glad the Legislature has brought the road program to a vote of the people, to let the citizens determine the future of our local infrastructure improvements.”
Kendon Underwood (R) – Declined to participate in the survey.
Kelly Krout (D) — “Yes, I support the highway tax. Roads are crucial to our communities and to economic development. And they don’t fix themselves. They will continue to need maintenance, and this is an important investment for our area.”
Nick Jones (D) — “I do not support any tax that shifts the burden disproportionately to the lower and middle-class population. I would suggest rolling back the tax cuts the governor and Republican-led Legislature passed for the wealthy.”
Delia Haak (R) — “Taxpayers will make the decision on whether they want to fund Arkansas roads through a permanent ½-cent sales tax.”
Jim Dotson (R)* — “The state constitution is not the place for an unchangeable sales tax to be. The Legislature, elected by the people every two years, should be held accountable to enact or reduce taxes as needs change. There are surpluses almost every year, that in addition to allocating road-user, generated revenue from sales tax on tires, car batteries, etc. should go to cover the ongoing cost of roads and that can be done without raising taxes.”
Daisy Bonilla (D) — “Yes, I agree with Governor Hutchinson and will vote for the highway tax. We need infrastructure to support the economy and everyday life. It will cost us more in the long run to not maintain our roads, and we need lawmakers to work across the aisle and at every level of government to make sure we’re making smart spending decisions on transportation and not wasting money on projects that will have to be redone. If it fails, we absolutely need to repeal the tax cut that was given to the wealthiest Arkansans.”
John Carr (R) — “I have concerns about putting permanent taxes into our state constitution. When the ½-cent sales tax was introduced seven years ago, it was done so as a temporary tax with a sunset clause and a specific purpose. Taxation should be handled through legislation, as there are many alternate funding sources and potential cost savings that could be used to fund highways.”
Jene Huffman-Gilreath (D) — “Like Governor Hutchinson, I do support the extension of the highway tax. Our roads are a vital part of everyday life and business, and we need to work across the aisle and across the state to make sure we are using those funds wisely.”
Josh Bryant (R) — “I am not supporting the extension of the highway tax on the November ballot. History of the initial ballot initiative passed by the Legislature was pushed through by compromise and with the addition of the sunset clause, which was likely the only way it passed the statewide vote. It seems every time the government states a tax will end, it will find a way to keep it using the claim it’s “not raising taxes”. The correct way is to call it what it is - a “new tax”. The intent of the current 0.5% tax was to construct and improve state, county and city roads. This was in addition to the taxes already levied for such purposes. These government agencies have had almost eight out of 10 years to devise a plan to correct the budget/revenue issues concerning roads. They should use the remaining two years to adjust for the coming shortfall, as was intended with the sunset clause, in the event this November proves the citizens remember the promises made in 2012.”
Jon Comstock (D) — “No. As I stated when the measure was originally being debated, I feel like the role of the Legislature is to make these funding choices. I do not believe it is healthy to “bake into” a constitution a tax rate and the sole purpose that the funds may be used for – even as worthy of a need as highways. If a person could not afford to pay their rent, would they continue with adding on an addition to the house according to some previous budget plan? Of course not. The state needs to be able to respond to the emerging needs of any given time. This amendment locks the state into a funding scheme that the pandemic may show us is not the best use of our dollars.”
Ronetta Francis (D) — “The voters will have an opportunity to speak their collective minds during the general election. At 9.47%, Arkansas ranks third with the highest combined local and state sales tax rates. If the proposed highway tax fails, another viable option some states have employed is to increase gas taxes. This increase would more closely align with the benefit principal than would a sales tax increase.”
Bart Hester (R)* — Declined to participate in survey.
Jim Hendren (R)* — “Yes. Roads are critical to keeping Arkansas competitive with other states and for a good quality of life.”
Ryan Craig (D) – Did not reply to survey.
Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.