LITTLE ROCK — Advocates of family and children’s services, along with representatives of a number of the state’s colleges and universities, voiced opposition Wednesday to a proposal they say would divert about $2.3 billion in state general revenue to state highways over the next decade .
House Bill 1418 by Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, would divert sales tax revenue generated by the sale of new and used cars, auto parts and services to the state Highway and Transportation Department.
The revenue shift would occur in increments over a 10-year period and eventually amount to about $450 million annually for the highway department, Barnett said Wednesday. He said he hopes to present the bill next week in the House Public Transportation Committee.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Youth, said during a rally against the bill at the state Capitol that the legislation "would take state general revenue that is used to fund critical services for children and families, including education, higher education, Medicaid and health services for vulnerable populations, services for abused and neglected children, juvenile justice services for kids … public safety and corrections and pre-K and child care for our youngest populations."
Huddleston urged the more than 100 people attending the rally to call their legislators and voice their opposition.
Also speaking at the rally were Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, University of Arkansas at Hope Chancellor Chris Thomasson, Darlene Byrd with the Arkansas Nursing Association and Donna Morey, president of the Arkansas Education Association.
Under the bill, Huddleston said, about $33 million would be shifted from general revenue to the highway department the first year, and about $2.3 billion over the first 10 years.
Thomasson said everyone understands the importance of the state’s highway system and that many attending the rally supported the 10-year, half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in November to pay for a $1.8 billion bond issue to build a four-lane link connecting all parts of the state.
However, losing $2.3 billion in funding over a 10-year period would be devastating, he said.
"We want our General Assembly to hear and understand the significant negative impact that House Bill 1418 will have on services to our families and the educational opportunities across the state," Thomasson said.
Huddleston told the crowd that the Legislature is already considering a number of tax cuts, so diverting $2.3 billion from general revenue, on top of any tax cuts, would mean cuts in services.
In an interview, Barnett said he has had his bill amended to stipulate that public school and higher education would not see any funding reductions.
He also said the proposal is one of the recommendations made by the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance in 2010. The panel met for about 18 months trying to determine how to address the state’s $19 billion in highway needs over the next 10 years.
The half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November also was one of the highway panel’s recommendations.
HB 1418 has more than 80 House sponsors and 23 in the Senate.
Gov. Mike Beebe’s spokesman said Wednesday the governor opposes any plan that would divert general revenue to fund highway department needs.