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Arkansas governor supports Biden infrastructure bill, touts highway sales tax

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks with reporters in a news conference in this file photo.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is praising new potential investments in infrastructure coming from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion funding package.

Speaking to members of the nonprofit Arkansas Good Roads Foundation in a meeting Monday, Hutchinson urged Congress to take a vote on the package as soon as possible.

“What it gives for us is $3.6 billion in highway funding over five years through the normal formula process, $278 million in bridge replacement funds over five years. These are big dollars for big projects to help us to avoid dangerous situations that we can have in the future,” Hutchinson said.

Despite that, the governor said he is “not wild” about Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending package known as the Build Back Better framework. Congressional Democrats have said they hope to bring both packages up for a vote on Tuesday.

Hutchinson spent much of Monday’s meeting praising an amendment to the state’s constitution previously known as Issue 1, which was approved by voters last year. The amendment made permanent a 0.5% sales tax that will provide roughly $300 million each year for transportation needs in the state, including over $200 million that will go directly to the state’s highways.

Hutchinson said the funding has given the state an advantage in recruiting new industry amid supply chain woes.

“We know exactly what our revenue picture is going to be in terms of the stability of it. There’s not going to be a deadline on it, it’s going to be long-term funding, and we have that capacity to build for the future,” Hutchinson said. “And it puts Arkansas head-and-shoulders above our surrounding states in terms of investment in infrastructure.”

He cited the recent $400 million investment by outdoor equipment manufacturer Trex at the Port of Little Rock as evidence of Issue 1’s success in recruiting new businesses to the state. Hutchinson said that amendment is so important to the state that lawmakers who spoke against it should face backlash at the ballot box.

“When you decide who you’re going to support for the General Assembly, one of the factors that you consider should be, how did they handle this vote? Were they with us, were they supportive of Issue 1? To me, if you’re in this industry, that’s important,” Hutchinson said.

Critics of Issue 1 had argued in favor of a tax on fuel or other materials used by trucks and other heavy users of the state’s roads instead of a sales tax.

Hutchinson also urged those attending the meeting to protect the independence of the Arkansas Highway Commission, a five-member panel that oversees the state Department of Transportation. Members are appointed by the governor and serve 10-year terms.

Also Monday, Hutchinson praised ARDOT’s efforts to respond to the closure of the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River last May. The governor also hailed the completion of the long-awaited Bella Vista Bypass in northwest Arkansas, and called for an extension of Interstate 49 from its current terminus near Fort Smith southward to Texarkana.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.