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The Associated Press March 22, 2011, 9:13AM ET

Ark House committee advances proposed amendments

A House committee made short work Monday of the five proposed constitutional amendments on its agenda, voting in a batch to advance all of them to the joint committee that will make referrals for the 2012 ballot.

The only measure that drew any discussion was a proposed 10-year, half-cent sales tax that would fund up to $1.8 billion for highway construction. The proposed amendment would also dedicate 1 cent from the existing 21-cent state gasoline tax to aid construction of city streets. Unlike the sales tax, that provision would not end after 10 years.

Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, a former Arkansas Highway Commission member, is the lead sponsor of the proposal, which would devote 70 percent of the temporary sales tax raised to building out a four-lane grid system across the state. The other 30 percent would go to cities and counties for their own road projects.

A Senate panel also advanced two proposed amendments. The joint committee of House and Senate members is scheduled to meet Tuesday, after both chambers adjourn.

The House committee also approved a proposal by Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, that would repeal a voter-approved amendment that mandated annual legislative sessions. Passage would return the Legislature to meeting every other year.

A proposal by Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, would require that 35 percent of proceeds from the state lottery be put toward college scholarships. Rep. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, sponsored a proposal that would eliminate the offices of lieutenant governor and lands commissioner.

The panel also recommended a measure by Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bentonville, that would specify that the five Highway Commission members represent their districts, not the whole state. Her amendment would have a rotating at-large commissioner that represents the maintenance district in which he or she resides. The state has 10 maintenance districts. The other four commissioners are drawn from the state's four congressional districts.

Hutchinson has complained that highway spending is inequitable among districts.

The five proposals had earlier been sifted from 13 proposed amendments offered by House members.

From the Senate, a proposal from Hutchinson's son, Little Rock Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, would put the state highway commission under the authority of the Arkansas Legislature. Currently, the highway commission is considered an independent agency under the state's constitution.

The other Senate proposal, by Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, would allow local governments to create redevelopment and development districts that could use bond financing for some retail projects. At present, communities can issue bonds for large industry. Files' measure would allow for smaller projects, such as hotels or theaters.

Barnett and Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Dan Flowers were on hand at the House committee to describe the proposal. The temporary sales tax would raise $160 million annually for state highways and $34 million each for cities and counties.

Overall, the proposal would make as much as $1.8 billion available for construction over the 10 years. The state would issue bonds, which would be paid down with the sales tax revenue, Barnett said.

The proposal has broad support, including that of the Arkansas Trucking Association, which is also backing a bill by House Speaker Robert Moore that would raise the sales tax on diesel fuel by 5 cents a gallon. Moore, a Democrat, has been having trouble lining up the votes he needs in the majority-Republican Senate Transportation Committee.

Barnett noted that the sales tax would not apply to food purchases, thus it won't run counter to Gov. Mike Beebe's bill to lower the state sales tax on groceries by half a cent, which is expected to pass.

Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia, asked whether Arkansas 7 -- a north-south route in the middle of the state -- would be widened under the amendment. Flowers said it wouldn't because it wasn't part of the grid system.

"However, the utilization of this new revenue for building out those four-lane sections would certainly take the pressure off of our other funding, our normal federal aid and study funding that would be available for such routes as Highway 7 and others," Flowers said.

Flowers noted that U.S. Highway 71, a major connector between Texarkana and Fort Smith is part of the grid system. The highway's path is part of the plan to extend Interstate 49 north-south along the state's western border.

Rep. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, made a motion to advance all five proposed amendments. It passed on a voice vote without discussion.

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