|Updated: 11/08/2011 10:47 pm
||Published: 11/08/2011 8:07 am
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas voters Tuesday renewed a $575 million bond program to repair more than 400 miles of interstate highways, apparently satisfied with results from a 1999 funding package that rebuilt an interstate highway system that had earned a reputation as one of the nation's worst.
With partial results from 71 of the state's 75 counties, the plan led 81 percent to 19 percent. One of the package's key selling points was that it wouldn't raise or lower taxes regardless of how the vote went.
"Arkansans will soon see the dividends from this investment in Arkansas," said Gov. Mike Beebe, who appeared in television commercials supporting the plan. "Better interstates and the jobs created to modernize them will help both our economy and our prospects for the future."
Through the 1990s, Arkansas' cracked and crumbling interstate highways were derided by cross-country truckers - and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee even joked that only auto mechanics would want to keep the state's highways in such a bad shape. Under the 1999 funding package, the state rebuilt or resurfaced more than 350 miles of four-lane roadways.
"We've gone from having some of the worst interstates in the country to literally some of the best," said Scott Bennett, the director of the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation.
Mac Core, a retired contractor who voted at a Little Rock fire station, said he voted for the bond issue because he believed it was the best way to quickly pay for interstate improvements.
"I just feel like we need to keep spending on our roads because people are going to keep using them," said Core, 72.
The success of the 1999 road program led Beebe to seek the bond renewal instead of a more-aggressive plan that included a tax increase.
"I think it's a fantastic night for private sector job creation in the state of Arkansas," said Madison Murphy, chairman of the state highway commission and the co-chair of the bond campaign.
Robert Schafer, who also voted at the Little Rock fire station, said the lack of a tax increase attached to the proposal was one of the reasons he voted for the bonds.
"I might have still voted for it even if there was a tax increase," said Schafer, 55. "Since there's not a tax increase, that doesn't make it that difficult of a decision."
Under the measure, 4 cents of the state's 22.5-cent diesel tax remain dedicated toward paying off the highway debt. Also, future federal transportation dollars will help pay off the state's debt.
Arkansas highway officials say the state's roads need $23 billion worth of work but that only $4 billion in funding is available.
Beebe decided in July to back the bond renewal after highway supporters scaled back a plan floated in the Legislature last spring. The state's trucking industry withdrew support for a 5-cent increase in the diesel tax to pay for highways, with the Arkansas Trucking Association claiming its polling showed the tax increase wouldn't have passed.
A half-cent sales tax increase for highways will appear on the 2012 general election ballot. It is expected to generate $159 million annually for the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation, plus $34.7 million each in additional funds for counties and cities, according to a blue ribbon commission report released just before the spring legislative session.
Arkansas voters may have another option to raise money for the state's roads next year. Along with the proposed sales tax increase, voters may be asked to raise the severance tax on natural gas to pay for road repairs. Sheffield Nelson, a former natural gas executive, is trying to place his proposal to raise the severance tax to 7 percent of the market value of the gas on next year's ballot. Wells are now taxed at between 1.25 percent and 5 percent of the value of the gas being severed from the land.
Nelson must gather about 62,000 signatures to get his proposal on the 2012 ballot, and supporters could be seen with petitions outside polling sites on Tuesday.
This year's campaign was a lopsided fight. The chairmen of the state's Democratic and Republican parties backed the bond proposal, and the opponents were a coalition of groups affiliated with the tea party. Move Arkansas Forward, the group campaigning for the bonds, reported last week that it had raised nearly $300,000 for the bond campaign. Secure Arkansas, the main group against the measure, had raised $600.
Jeannie Burlsworth, Secure Arkansas' chairwoman, blamed the group's defeat on the timing of the election and vowed to monitor the bond program.
"We'll be watching this as closely as we can so there's transparency and we can see where the money is spent," Burlsworth said Tuesday night.
Arkansans in 1949 approved a $28 million road bond program that triggered an investigation and, eventually, led to the formation of the state Highway Commission. Auditors found wasteful practices and questionable political contributions, but no one in the governor's administration was charged. Voters rejected bond plans floated in 1965 and 1996. The 1996 plan failed by nearly a 7-1 margin.
Turnout was light statewide, with several precincts sitting empty - except for poll workers - for a large portion of the day.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)