Friday, May 20, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Tax needed for our roads

In his weekly column and radio address yesterday, Governor Hutchinson drew an analogy to the first legislative session in the new state Capitol 105 years ago to suggest that his little weekend special session also was truly historic.

“After all,” he concluded his address, after briefly describing the purposes of the legislative session, “we’re making history—and it’s a story we’ll all be able to tell.”

If this little session turns out to be historic and not merely trivial, it is for a reason that the governor did not and never will mention. He and the legislature will have reversed a principle that governors and legislatures have followed resolutely for 75 years: Never fund highways, roads and streets from the state’s general revenues but rather from taxes raised specifically for highways and usually levied on the users of those highways—motorists and the big carriers that hog the roadways and that account for most of the damage and the need for repairs and rebuilding.

General revenues—the income, sales and cigarette taxes you pay and a batch of much smaller levies—pay for the public schools, colleges, prisons, medical services and the general operations of state government, like the legislature, the courts and executive offices. If the state highway agency and its powerful constituents—the road and bridge contractors and suppliers and the shipping industry—ever got their nose under the tent, education and the other essential services of the state would begin to suffer.

And that is exactly the governor’s plan, though he does not describe it that way. He wants to raise state money for highways, especially to match federal money that President Obama and Congress will make available this fall, by moving money around in the budgets funded by general revenues and applying “surpluses” that he anticipates in the general fund the next five years to highways. If the state is able to generate surpluses each year it will be because they will have starved the schools, colleges, medical services and other programs that do not have powerful constituencies to squeeze out money to pay for such things as the big 10-lane Interstate freeway through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Schools and colleges were once powerful groups at the Capitol but no more. They meekly go along. Thus no one objects to the governor’s plan because his party is now all-powerful in all three branches of government, and education and other services for the poor and needy take a backseat to lower taxes. Everybody recognizes where power lies now.

Hutchinson has boasted repeatedly that he is going to speed up highway building and do it without new taxes. Of course, someone has to pay for the highway widening and repairs and it’s best not to identify them. But you know who they are.

The heartening thing is that a handful of legislators, from both parties, still resist. A bipartisan group, principally in the Senate, wants highway users to pay for the highway improvements and that they should include the big transportation industry that now hogs the superhighways while paying a small fraction of the highway costs by everyone’s calculations, including the Highway Department’s. But the big trucks and the shippers will bear none of the burden under the governor’s plan, which is certain to become law next week in some form. A few legislators want to limit the governor’s plan to a single year and come back next spring, at the regular legislative session, and enact a real highway plan, which would include taxes on road users. Hutchinson wants to avoid anything that smacks of taxes until after his re-election in 2018. He fears a challenge from Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin or another tea-party stalwart, who would attack him for raising taxes.

The bipartisan Senate group would propose some form of road-user tax—a small increase in the state excise tax on motor fuels, repealing the exemption of gasoline and diesel from the state sales tax or some combination—but Hutchinson says he won’t stand for it, not right now anyway. Right now, he wants credit for a freebie—bigger spending on highways at no cost to the taxpayers—as if that were ever possible.

We must mention in this context one other trivial bill in the governor’s three-day session, the 105-page bill introduced at the last minute that is supposed to address “efficiencies” in state government. It tinkers with the law on a number of fairly minor state agencies like the state Young and Beginning Farmer Advisory Board, the state History Commission, the Teacher Housing Development Foundation and the state Governor’s Mansion Commission. Mainly, the huge omnibus bill seems to consolidate power under the governor and to reduce the independence of constitutionally independent agencies like the Game and Fish Commission and Highway Department, while centralizing power under the governor and his direct appointees, like the head of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, Stacy Hurst.

Hurst will take total control of agencies like the History Commission and state history archives and the Governor’s Mansion Commission and cancel programs across the state that do not have a forceful constituency, perhaps saving a few dollars for the highway program.

If that counts for “historic” in the governor’s lexicon, it looks like he is heading for a truly historic legacy. Count us among the skeptics.