Columns » John Brummett

Is truckers' highway program falling apart?



It was an idea that seemed so glorious and logical only weeks ago.

Big truckers wanted to pay higher diesel taxes to finance bonds to fix the roads they drive on, meaning the interstate ones and main federal highways. The truckers understood, you see, that they needed to invest in public pavement for the same reason that railroads invested in private tracks.

The trucking industry was motivated by worry about widespread conversion to toll roads. It also was worried about what federal deficit-reduction might mean to the transportation infrastructure.

So, as kind of a laboratory experiment in little Arkansas, truckers would offer to raise their state diesel taxes by a nickel a gallon over 10 years for a billion-plus dollars in bonded debt, so long as the money would go to the major pathways they use.

All they needed, since public debt was involved, was for the voters to approve of their largesse in a special election, one the legislature would refer to the governor's call.

With nary a Republican vote on the floor, the proposal got referred — after, that is, Republicans amended the measure to say the governor could call this election only once, not over and over until the voters got outlasted, and to provide that the diesel increase would not apply to farm vehicles.

So have you got all that? Fine. Now perhaps you ought to begin to forget it. The whole thing may be falling apart.

The Arkansas Trucking Association got worried about soaring fuel prices and the public appetite for higher fuel taxes. There would be few things more embarrassing from a public policy standpoint than asking to be allowed to pay higher taxes and then being denied. You would have conceded your special obligation, but not addressed your problem.

And, remember, there was only one shot at an election. Thus timing was everything.

So the Trucking Association retained a highly regarded national pollster who happened to be known and trusted by Gov. Mike Beebe — Harrison Hickman — to take the temperature on all this of 600 Arkansas respondents.

Poll results began leaking out last week. Long story short: Nearly two-thirds opposed taxing truckers more, half "strongly." When pushed by the pollster to understand that they wouldn't pay the tax on gasoline themselves, and that only truckers would, and when further pushed to understand that this would mean jobs and safer roads and bridges, respondents softened their opposition — by merely a couple of points.

This fiscally driven taxpayer revolt may not have subsided in Arkansas. One thing people seem to believe most fervently is that increased taxes on a shipper means more costs to the end consumer.

Hickman's conclusion was that the anti-tax mood of the Arkansas electorate was toxic. He doubted the success of a campaign even if funded by millions.

Truckers are not inclined to ante up big dollars for a campaign so they could be denied on their offer to tax themselves more.

Meanwhile, a few Democratic state legislators have been heard to wonder if they might undo their referral of this diesel fuel scheme in the fiscal legislative session next year. They're getting a sense of the temperature, apparently.

Late Thursday, the Trucking Association sent a letter to Beebe asking him formally to put off indefinitely calling this 5-cent diesel fuel tax election, calling it the "right policy at the wrong time."

Instead, truckers want Beebe to consider calling a different election entirely at some point in the next year or two. That would be one simply to re-up the current 4-cent diesel tax bond program that will be paid off by 2013 and otherwise expire at the time.

Unless that one is at least renewed, the state would be left not only without additional money for major highway maintenance, but without the existing amount.

Surely the people would let the truckers keep paying their current diesel fuel rate.


Don't you think?

Finally, don't forget that this amounts to half the story. House Speaker Robert Moore also persuaded the Legislature to refer to the people at the general election ballot in 2012 a proposed constitutional amendment for a half-cent general sales tax increase for even more bonded debt for four-lane connectors between major towns.

I always thought the truckers' tax-us-more plan was much easier to sell.

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