Wednesday, December 09, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Let's not cut local funding

If we can’t keep our bridges and tunnels open and roads in good repair, the prospects for this state and nation stagnate.

The same is true of the rest of our infrastructure. We’re sitting, sleeping, educating, driving, playing and praying over an aging tangle of gas, oil, water and electric lines, with even more electric lines overhead, awaiting the next ice storm and week-long blackout.

Many need replacement before it’s too late—reference the Exxon oil pipeline leak at Mayflower and the pipe that burst under the Arkansas River, resulting in a towering geyser in downtown Little Rock.

Security of our military, our banking, Wall Street, our electric generation and the routing of our planes and trains may already have been hacked and compromised by foreign nations and other groups.

Now there’s not much we can do about most of that here in the Natural State. But we can and must tend to our roads and highways, and fix or replace substandard bridges.

For a variety of reasons, we don’t have the money we need to do this, and after years of study, Gov. Asa Hutchinson convened the Governor’s Task Force on Highway Funding, packed with “stakeholders” — that’s legislators, road construction and trucking-industry lobbyists, financial people and others who seemed to have looked at the problem through their own eyes.

The Working Group is due to submit a menu of strategies to Hutchinson by Tuesday, according to Duncan Baird, chairman and director of the state Department of Finance and Administration.

The governor is expected to choose from that menu, although most or all changes will require legislative action, and, barring a special session, they will not be considered until the January 2017 General Assembly convenes.

While long term, the state Highway Department needs billions of dollars, the working group focused on short-term funding.

The Highway Department needs enough money to unlock matching funds from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

While working group members may not agree on the remedy, they do agree on the goals.
In the short-term, the working group wants to raise $110 million a year for the AHTD, with $45 million of that for federal matching funds annually and $65 million for overlays, sealing projects and other projects.

They want to raise another $140 million a year for the ADH three to five years in the future, for a total of $250 million of additional revenue for enhanced maintenance, including overlaying, sealing or rehabilitating about half of the highway system every 15 to 20 years and increasing the frequency of sign replacement and upgrades to rest areas.

The goal would add another $150 million a year beginning years six through nine to Highway Department funds, raising the annual increase over current funding to $400 million a year.

Currently, road and highway revenues from taxes and turnback are split between the state Highway and Transportation Department, 70 percent, and the cities and counties, which each received 15 percent.

That split appears safe for now, at least for current revenue streams.

Legislators and local officials have watched warily, concerned that the state might redraw that formula to, say, 90 percent to the state and 5 percent each to the cities and counties.

State Rep. Andy Davis (R-Little Rock), has suggested that money transferred from the state’s General Fund to its Highway Fund would remain 100 percent state money. Legislators, county judges and mayors are concerned about that.

But what also concerns us is that money would be coming from state funding of education—probably against past court decisions like the Lake View case—and from other social programs that affect families, children and health.

It’s not clear how — or if — the $125 million a year or more taken from education and those programs could or would be replaced.

If the governor and the legislature want to rejigger fuel and sales tax rates, charge higher registration fees on electric, compressed natural gas or hybrid cars to help make up for the fuel taxes they don’t pay, well, we can live with that.

But we are flat against any reduction of revenues to city and county road departments and totally against moving revenues from the General Fund to the Highway Fund unless there’s a surefire way to offset them.

Sixty-five percent of the General Fund goes, in one form or another, to education.