The fuel tax maverick

opinion by Maylon Rice

Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

When in-state trucking CEO Steve Williams talks about being for more, new and higher federal taxes on diesel fuel, which could help with the dwindling federal Highway Trust Fund, he is indeed becoming a political maverick.

Williams is the CEO of Little Rock-based Maverick Transportation, one of Arkansas largest and the nation’s Top 100 “for-hire” carriers. We have all seen those big deep purple Maverick rigs out on the Interstate highways. Once they were all flatbed rigs, but that too, has changed as has Maverick’s growth in Arkansas.

But let’s get back to the CEO of this company calling for a federal fuel tax increase to build and maintain more of the Interstate Highway system. When it comes to Arkansas taxes and Arkansas truckers, the state’s public may have a slightly jaundiced belief in what truckers say and what they do on in state tax pledges.

We recall a controversial sales tax exemption back in 2012 which benefited truckers, but somehow a promise for support from truckers on another state issue wasn’t such a done deal. The truckers made off like bandits while Arkansas’ Joe Taxpayer held the empty sack to the tune of $4 million a year.

But just keep in mind, Williams is talking about a federal tax on diesel fuel, which has been unchanged since 1993 – 21 years ago.

There are no state taxes being discussed in this proposal.

At a recent Beltway conference with transportation executives, Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, and Vice President Joe Biden and other White House staffers met with Williams and several dozen trucking CEOs. The event was hosted by Business Forward, an advocacy group, headquartered in Washington D.C.

The crux of the meeting was an ambitious $302 billion Grow America Act, a piece of legislation which would increase funding to Highway and Trust Fund. Suddenly governor’s and local legislators in Arkansas have their ears and eyes raised towards Washington D.C. looking for some help and assurances. Federal Highway Truck Fund dollars do matter to the Arkansas Highway Commission and fixing Arkansas roadways. It is a big deal – a very big deal.

Could Williams and other CEOs of Arkansas’ Trucking Companies assist the state’s highway construction funds, by backing this federal program which would funnel federal dollars to road construction and maintenance of the Interstate Highway system in Arkansas? Let’s hope so.

Let’s also hope that Congress gets the message from this summit and other economic signals that the Highway Trust Fund is projected to dip below $4 billion in upcoming August. This dip in federal funds with already $6 billion committed for road projects needs to be addressed at the federal level before states see cuts into federal funds for road projects needed back here at home.

But will Congress, as divided as it is, allow an increase in the federal fuel tax? Williams and others made the case for the federal fuel tax increase this past week. CEO’s like Williams and others in our state, will need to keep this conversation going if it is going to get out of first gear and through the Congress.

Arkansas’ Congressional delegation – with at least two divisive races for “open” seats – may be slow to come around to this new proposed increase in the federal fuel tax, even with the blessing of in-state trucking managers. No one, you see, likes any kind of tax increase in an election year.

But certainly no incumbent Congressman, like U.S. Rep Steve Womack, R-Rogers, likes to see cuts in federal dollars spent on needed Interstate road repairs in this vibrant economic corner of Arkansas. If the Congress doesn’t fix the Highway Trust Fund, there will be cuts in federal money for state road projects.

It really is about time for Arkansas Trucking CEO’s to step out into the light and promote this cause. Better roads built with state dollars can only go so far. Arkansas, because of its location, has perhaps more miles of federal interstate highways and more developing federal highway projects than any other state of its size.

We can certainly thank the billions of dollars which have been generated from the federal Highway Trust Fund in the past to helping build the infrastructure Arkansas has in place. Keeping that funding for the future expansion and general maintenance plus keeping this trust fund viable for usage in economic growth area is a program we all should embrace.

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If the CEO’s of the state’s truckers tell us they would rather pay a higher fuel tax rate than run on roadways that need repairs let’s believe them. And prod our Congressmen to look a long-term fixes to the Highway Trust Fund, not just temporary influxes of cash with no long-term assurances to the state highway systems that monies will be available in the future.

Be a maverick on federal fuel taxes. Ask Steve Williams how that feels.

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