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Source : Arkansas DOT
March 21, 2023
Author : Patty Allen
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled recently that the state highway builders should utilize $350 million in voter-approved half-cent sales tax revenue to expand Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock as part of the $1 billion 30 Crossing Project.
The decision is said as "a victory for the future of Arkansas' roads" by Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
The high court's 6-1 decision aired after 13 months of Judge Mackie Pierce, Pulaski County Circuit Judge blocking that spending, supporting the residents, business owners, and neighborhood associations of Little Rock who were sued to challenge the plan's legality by the ARDOT to use the funds on the six-lane highway.
Pierce discovered that the Arkansas constitution forbids using these funds on highways with six lanes or more, like I-30.
The Supreme Court ruled that there are no constitutional restrictions on how the highway agency intends to use the fund in a decision drafted by Justice Courtney Rae Hudson.
Chief Justice Dan Kemp's dissent did not support the downtown groups. Kemp disputed that the plaintiffs had a valid reason for suing since the tax money won't be collected until July, and there's no guarantee when the money will be utilized on I-30.
Differences between Amendment 91 from 2012 and Amendment 101 from 2020, which voters approved to pay for road and bridge improvements, were at issue. Amendment 91 stated a 10-year statewide sales tax at 0.05% (one-half cent per dollar), and Amendment 101 made the tax levy permanent, beginning in July.
In a ruling from the state Supreme Court in 2020, it was determined that the funds could not be used on I-630 because Amendment 91 forbids using the money on roads with more than four lanes. Depending on the court's reasoning, Pierce concluded that the prohibition would also apply to the fund raised when Amendment 101 takes effect in July. According to him, Amendment 101 only served to make the tax permanent.
An attorney for the groups and residents, Richard Mays, stated, "I am disappointed in the court's decision and that the $350 million of Amendment 101 tax money that the court approved for spending on widening Interstate 30 through Little Rock and North Little Rock will not be expended on the improvement of the state's 4-lane highway system."
Pierce wrote in his February 2022 decision the Supreme Court's interpretation of constitutional norms becomes a part of the provision, so the use of funds from Amendment 101 is subject to the same limitations that apply to Amendment 91. He added, "If the General Assembly had intended the tax imposed by Amendment 91 and now to be continued by Amendment 101 to be used for major improvements to six-lane highways, [legislators] could have expressly so stated."
"Here, the plain language of Amendment 101 is clear; no rules of construction are needed to interpret it," they stated in the pleadings. "Unlike Amendment 91, Amendment 101 plainly states that the half-cent sales and use tax is 'to provide special revenue for the use of maintaining, repairing, and improving the state's system of highways, county roads, and city streets.'
The General Assembly did not restrict the use of Amendment 101 funding to four-lane highway projects as it did with Amendment 91."