CHICAGO — Nebraska would issue up to $500 million of bonds backed by a slice of its sales tax under a bill likely to be debated by the Legislature in the next two weeks.
The last time the state government sold debt to finance road capital projects was 1969. But falling road revenues have prompted lawmakers to give borrowing a fresh look.
“Right now, our construction programs fund about half of what our needs are estimated at,” said Dusty Vaughan, legal counsel to the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
Vaughan said the state needs $350 million annually to maintain the transportation system and currently spends $316 million — down from $390 million in 2006.
“On top of that, obviously we have a lot of capital improvement projects that are just sitting on the shelf because we don’t have any money,” he said.
The proposal, introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Valentine, would divert at least $125 million from the general fund for transportation needs. The bill comes as double-A-plus rated Nebraska faces an unprecedented $940 million general fund shortfall in its upcoming two-year budget. Lawmakers will begin budget hearings in April.
Like other states, Nebraska, which does not issue general obligation debt, faces major demands on its highway infrastructure in a time of falling road revenues. Officials estimate the state will need $9.2 billion for capital projects over the next 20 years.
Fischer introduced LB 84 to help generate new dollars for the transportation budget without raising taxes or fees. The revenue committee passed the measure unanimously last month and the full unicameral Legislature is expected to debate it within the next few weeks.
Fischer’s bill would divert 0.5% of the 5.5% sales tax from the general fund into the highway capital fund.
The half-cent diversion would generate $125 million in fiscal 2013 and $144 million in fiscal 2014 for the transportation budget, and mean an equal loss for the state’s general fund, according to a fiscal analysis.
The bulk of the new money would be used to finance capital projects deemed a high priority, while at least $15 million would be used for construction of the state expressway system. No more than $25 million could go toward annual debt service.
The transportation budget is currently generated entirely through user fees, including a gas tax and vehicle fees.
Fischer’s bill would allow the Nebraska State Highway Commission to issue up to $500 million of sales tax-backed debt. The commission currently has the authority to issue debt but has not done so since 1969, Vaughan said.
The bill would require the commission to issue the bonds between 2013 and 2018, and pay them off by 2038.
The bill would give a piece of the new revenue — about 17% — to local governments, which have spent years clamoring for more road funding.