DALLAS — Arkansas House Speaker Robert Moore opened the 86th General Assembly by asking lawmakers Monday to adequately fund a proposed road plan that could involve more than $2 billion of bonds.
“Highway funding is a critical issue to economic development in the state of Arkansas,” he said.
Moore stopped short of endorsing the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance, which urged passage last month of a 10-year road program to be bankrolled by $1.8 billion of revenue bonds and $575 million of federal highway grant anticipation and tax revenue bonds issued by the Arkansas Highway Commission.
Moore, a Democrat from Arkansas City, said there is no doubt the state highway system must be maintained and expanded. However, he noted that “we don’t have enough money to maintain, much less do the things that every Arkansan would like to see done — and that’s the four-lane grid system.”
The latter remark was a reference to the plan the highway finance committee supports.
It suggested that proceeds from the $575 million of the Garvee bonds be devoted to a four-lane highway system connecting Arkansas’ major cities. Proceeds from the $1.8 billion of revenue bonds would be used to maintain the state’s current system of interstate highways.
Lawmakers would have to be courageous to raise taxes, according to Moore.
“It’s going to be a tough one, because it’s going to take additional funding and we’re going to have to find out where we’re going to get it,” he told reporters at a news conference following Monday’s formal swearing-in ceremonies.
Moore said lawmakers must focus on important issues and not be distracted by minor political disputes.
“We have issues before us that affect everyone in Arkansas,” he said. “We have a lot more on our plate than we’ll have time to deal with.”
The session is set to expire March 10.
Senate President Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, said there may not be enough support in the Senate to pass a tax package for the proposed road program.
“I don’t think right now is a time we need to be putting a tax increase on citizens,” Bookout said at news conference. “That’s just a strong feeling I have.”
Gov. Mike Beebe opposes redirecting current revenues that now go to the general fund to the highway program, as suggested in the Blue Ribbon report. He said last week that any action on the highway plan must come from lawmakers.
“I’ll have my proposals on a number of issues,” said Beebe, a Democrat. “But if Robert Moore wants to take the lead on highway funding, I’ll work with him to see if there is something that I can support.”