DALLAS — Arkansas voters would be asked to decide on $2.8 billion of state bonds for highway projects under a proposal to be introduced next week by House Speaker Robert Moore Jr.
Moore said Thursday he would propose a constitutional amendment to raise the sales tax rate by 0.5% for 10 years to support $1.8 billion of revenue bonds. The current rate is 6%.
Proceeds from the bonds would finance a network of four-lane highways connecting major cities in Arkansas.
The constitutional amendment would also increase the state's tax on diesel fuel by 5 cents a gallon to expand a proposed federal highway grant anticipation revenue and tax revenue bond program to $1 billion from the current $575 million plan.
Proceeds from the expanded Garvee program would be earmarked to extensions and maintenance of the interstate highway system within Arkansas.
"We have a good solution to a problem that we have an obligation to the people of the state of Arkansas to address," Moore said. "That's what we're going to do."
The proposals are based on recommendations from the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance. The committee delivered its report to the General Assembly and Gov. Mike Beebe in December 2010.
Moore's proposal calls for putting the amendment on the ballot in November 2012. He said he will propose a constitutional amendment rather than legislation to raise revenue for the highway program due to a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the General Assembly for tax hikes.
"I recognized this was going to be an extremely difficult battle," he told reporters at a news conference at the capitol on Thursday. "You work to get a consensus on what you can get done."
The proposals are endorsed by the Arkansas Highway Commission, the Arkansas Municipal League, the Arkansas Trucking Association, and the Association of Arkansas Counties, according to Moore.
He said the funding plan is not a permanent solution to the need for more money for transportation. However, he said it would give lawmakers a 10-year window to find an acceptable answer.
"We not only have found some extremely valuable funding to take care of the needs that we have now and expand our highway system, but effectively we buy us about 10 years," Moore said.
Revenue from the 0.5% increase in the sales tax would be divided, with 70% going to the state and the remaining 30% split among cities and counties for local road efforts.
Lawmakers in 2007 approved a plan for a vote on up to $575 million of federal highway grant anticipation and diesel-tax revenue bonds to be issued by the Arkansas Highway Commission. No date was set for the election, but the bonds have to be issued no later than Dec. 31, 2013.
Beebe did not include the measure on the 2008 or 2010 general election ballots. He said the state would not have capacity under the Garvee program to issue additional bonds until after fiscal 2010.
Voters approved $575 million of 12-year highway bonds in 1999, which were sold in tranches of $175 million in March 2000, $185 million in July 2001, and $215 million in July.
However, voters in 2005 rejected a plan for another $575 million Garvee authorization by 60%.
The state tax on diesel fuel is 22.6 cents per gallon, with 4 cents supporting the Garvee bond program. If voters approve the proposed tax hike, 9 cents would be dedicated to the Garvees.