State Rep. Bill Stovall of Quitman, the rube-talking country merchant who is speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, will never be confused with a lawyer, but he is a shrewder constitutionalist than anyone who is associated with the big interstate highway bond issue.
Stovall doubts that it is constitutional for a few voters one day in the early years of the 21st century to abolish a voting right of generations of voters to follow, which is what we will be asked to do in a little special election on Dec. 13. That part of the big debt package that Gov. Huckabee asks voters to approve violates the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.
It would have taken Stovall no more than 30 seconds to determine that the 2005 bond proposal flouted Amendment 20. The single operating sentence in that simple law says that voters must give their OK every time that the state borrows money and pledges state tax receipts to pay off the debt.
If voters approve the governor’s proposition, the state Highway Commission in a few years — sometime in 2010 or afterward — will borrow up to $575 million to repair some of the interstate highways. After that, the Highway Commission could borrow whenever it chose without the voters’ approval as long as it did not exceed $575 million.
Gov. Huckabee says not to sweat. If future generations got riled up over the unadulterated power we gave the Highway Commission in 2005 they could get 80,000 signatures on petitions, or whatever it took then, to put another proposition on the ballot to restore their right to vote before they were saddled with more debt.
If that makes people feel better, he is right. But there is an even surer safety net. The Highway Commission almost certainly could never market unvoted bonds without a test lawsuit and a state Supreme Court ruling that the bonds did not violate Amendment 20.
Huckabee said early on that the authors of Amendment 20 would surely embrace his proposition.
No chance. Gov. J. Marion Futrell, the father of Amendment 20, thought in the year 1934 that he had put a lid forever on tax increases and debt. He hated both, and Amendments 19 and 20 threw up what he thought were insurmountable hurdles.
Amendment 20 was a reaction to the highway debt run up by Gov. Harvey Parnell, his predecessor, and to previous road, levee and drainage district bonds. The state at the time was a couple million dollars in arrears in retiring its accumulated debts, a fabulous sum in that day. Futrell did not think the state should be going into debt and he thought he was putting an end to it by requiring Arkansas voters to first approve every bond issue.
Now, there is nothing radical about borrowing money against future taxes without the voters’ approval — a bunch of states allow it — but it has abraded Arkansas’s conservative nature, or at least it has until now.
Stovall’s question about the legality of waiving constitutionally guaranteed future voting rights at an election where no more than a fifth of the electorate is likely to vote is not the only question that should be raised about this screwy proposition.
A good one: Why are we voting on it in December 2005? The Highway Commission says it will not use the bond authority, if the voters provide it, until 2010 and perhaps much later. The state won’t be doing much interstate work in the new few years because it is up to its neck trying to pay off the $500 million of debt from the last interstate bond issue.
If I were the Highway Commission, I would be thinking about how high long-term interest rates are apt to be in five years as the country tries to get investors to carry the nation’s massive debt (see Alan Greenspan, Nov. 14). If you can have the debate now, you can boast of a relatively low interest load.
The Highway Commission says the state would pay only about $745 million in principal and interest for the $575 million of actual road-building money over the 12-year payout period. That is based on low interest rates.
If removing the voting requirement for future debt makes sense for interstate highways, why is it not all right for other debt — say for public school or college buildings, or for other kinds of highways and roads besides interstates? Perhaps the bond lawyers and brokers are working on that legislation for the day when easy debt gains acceptance.
Of course, it would be harder to do for school buildings. The interstate bond proposal commits state school revenues to pay off the highway bonds should Washington cut interstate grants to the state or the consumption of diesel fuel slumps, both distinct possibilities. How many lawmakers know they did that? A few are complaining now that Gov. Huckabee and the sponsors never told them that the bill authorizing the bond election waived future voting rights.
No one asked any questions then. This is not the perfect time to be having the debate but it is the only chance left.