DALLAS - A proposed bond issue that would finance state highway projects in Oklahoma has been endorsed by transportation advocates and blasted by educators during separate news conferences at the state capitol.
Lawmakers are working out the size and scope of the still-unofficial bond issue in hopes of enacting a measure before the Legislature adjourns May 23.
Details are few and closely guarded, but Senate leaders have floated the idea for a $400 million issue that would provide $300 million for state projects and $100 million for county efforts, while House transportation leaders are considering a $250 million state road bond issue.
"Right now there is nothing definitive on paper, but we are talking," said Tim Allen, deputy state treasurer for policy and administration. "The Legislature is on schedule to adjourn on the 23rd, so we're going to have to do something quickly."
A separate measure would remove the provision that prohibits the Oklahoma Department of Transportation from getting its annual installment from an eight-year road and bridge maintenance package approved in 2006 unless state revenues grow by 3% from the previous year. Revenue growth was less than 3% this year, cutting ODOT's installment in fiscal 2009 to $17.5 million instead of the scheduled $50 million.
Former state Transportation Secretary Neal McCaleb, flanked by several legislators, said at a news conference on Monday the revenue trigger could result in ODOT losing $275 million over the life of the program.
Sen. Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said a recent poll found that 82% of Oklahomans believe the Legislature should use more of the state's existing road taxes and fees to repair transportation infrastructure.
"Oklahomans want to see a tangible transportation funding agreement that produces visible results in improved roads and bridges," he said. "In order to have more jobs in Oklahoma, fewer highway fatalities, and a more robust economy in our rural and urban areas, we have got to start making transportation a priority."
A coalition of educators held a news conference last week to oppose the proposed bond issue on the grounds that the debt would be serviced from the general fund, resulting in fewer dollars available for public education.
"We have no problem with the idea of a bond issue for roads and bridges, because we know they are necessary," said Randall Raburn, executive director of the Cooperative Council of School Administrators. "I don't know how big a bond issue the Legislature is planning. I hope it isn't too large. But they don't have a stream of money to pay for it."
Raburn said public education in Oklahoma gets 35% of the state's general fund appropriations, so money taken for road bond debt service means fewer dollars for education.
"The state will have to take money from the general fund because we have a stand-still budget with no revenue growth," he said. "The Legislature keeps cutting tax so now we don't have enough money to run this state. Those tax cuts have caught up with us."
Guy Berry, a member of the Oklahoma Transportation Commission who represents the northeast part of the state, said the highway department needs the proceeds from the bond issue to help deal with a road and bridge maintenance backlog of $9 billion.
Berry said the Legislature should remove the 3% revenue trigger provision and provide a funding source for the road bonds.
"We'd like to have a bond issue, but we don't want to pay for it," he said. "The Legislature approved a road bond issue several years ago, and then took money from our appropriations to pay for the debt service. We don't want one of those deals."
Berry said the 3% trigger was arbitrary.
"Regardless of the status of state revenues, our needs don't go away," he said. "The state's economy depends on a good highway system, and now we have the state's highway system dependent upon the economy. It's a paradox, and we're just going around in circles."