LITTLE ROCK — State lawmakers on Wednesday questioned the state highway department’s spending of $23,000 on a radio ad about a highway construction project on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
The proposed constitutional amendment, Issue 1 on the ballot, would raise the state sales tax by a half-cent to fund a $1.8 billion bond issue to build a four-lane highway system connecting all corners of the state.
Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, told lawmakers reviewing the agency’s proposed budget for next fiscal year that his department paid for the radio ad to help explain Issue 1 to the public and direct people to the department website for specific information about road projects it would fund. The ad did not ask viewers to vote for the measure, he said.
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, said he was concerned about the department spending tax dollars on the radio ad.
"I know it’s a small amount of money, very small … (but) I just don’t see the need for a state agency with taxpayer dollars to do any sort of issue awareness, or advocacy, no matter how broadly it’s defined, or narrow the scope.," Burris said. "I just don’t see the benefit, whether or not it was something for or was not."
Burris asked if the department’s website included comments from opponents of the sales tax increase for road building.
"How a sales tax increase could be bad? Things like (having the) sixth-highest sales tax in the country? Thirteenth (highest) tax burden in the country?" Burris asked.
Bennett said there were no such comments on the site.
Bennett told lawmakers that the state Highway Commission was aware of the radio ad. Commission Chairman Madison Murphy said later he understood the concerns raised by lawmakers, but that educating the public was the job of the highway department.
"Our job, the department’s job, is really just to get the facts out," Murphy said, adding that when the idea of a radio ad came up, "we clearly checked with counsel to make sure that everything was done exactly right.
"We all felt that it was incumbent on the department to get the facts out in one form or another. You can’t really just rely on a Move Arkansas Forward Committee as a campaign advocacy committee,."
Move Arkansas Forward, the committee formed to promote the highway measure, reported raising $1.46 million and spending $1.31 million through Sept. 30.
"This is something that the voters of Arkansas are going to vote on, that the department is responsible for the administration of it, so we felt that it was important for the department to get just the facts out … without any advocacy whatsoever," Murphy said.
Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, brought up the advertisement during the budget hearing, saying that he and Bennett had talked about a year ago about whether the department would be advocating for the proposal and were told it would not.
Bennett said he remembered the conversation and understood Bell’s concern.
"I sure didn’t mean to give the impression that we weren’t going to spend any money to try to educate people," he said. "We weren’t going to spend any money to try to advocate for it."
Bell said he understood, but disagreed with Bennett’s position.
"It’s a much broader issue involved there. I believe, profoundly, that issue education is frequently misused in politics and certainly would like to see us have a situation where it’s a little cleaner in Arkansas law," Bell said. "I understand what you are doing is legal and permissible."
After the meeting, Bell said he filed legislation during the 2011 session that would have prohibited public servants or state agencies and departments from spending tax dollars to support or oppose a ballot proposal. The bill was never considered in the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. Bell said he would file it again during the 2013 session.