Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Highway scare tactics

Lots of legislators have needed reassuring since learning that the highway bond law they enacted last spring asks voters to surrender their voice on future highway debt, so Gov. Huckabee and the state Highway and Transportation Department applied the balm this week.

Here is their argument for giving the Highway Commission eternal authority to keep a debt of up to $575 million without getting approval of voters each time it borrows: It will save the taxpayers the cost of special elections in the future, and if the Highway Commission cannot issue any more bonds it will not be able to improve primary and secondary highways out around the state.

Both are ridiculous arguments, immediately refutable, but it takes very little to persuade a gullible lawmaker.
Gov. Huckabee has been deploring the cost of special statewide elections - the one he is calling for Dec. 13 will cost you right at $1 million - and he says voters will be saving themselves and their heirs more such costs if they vote to surrender their right to vote on future debt propositions for the Interstate highways. Highway officials offered the same argument to legislators at the Capitol.

That seemed to reassure several lawmakers.

But the taxpayers need not pay a single dime to vote on bonds, even on the current proposition. They could submit the issue to voters at the general election next November, or November 2008 or November 2010. There is, after all, no rush about voting. The Highway Commission does not plan to issue the bonds until 2010 at the earliest and perhaps much later.

The money that will be pledged to pay off the proposed bonds is tied up for the next few years to pay off the existing Interstate bonds.
They do not want bond votes held at the general election because three or four times as many people will vote at a general election. Special elections attract voters with a vested interest.

Everyone should ignore the argument that the bond proposal will economize with taxpayersí money. Exactly the opposite is true.
If Huckabee were genuinely concerned about election expenses, he would save taxpayers a million dollars by putting his proposals on the 2006 ballot. It apparently never occurred to a legislator to call the highway menís hand.
And the cost of future special elections is the strongest of their arguments.

Since all of the $575 million that the Highway Commission wants to borrow when it pays down the current debt would be spent on the remaining Interstate mileage that has not been improved, there is no incentive for people far off the Interstates to vote for the proposition and some incentive to vote no.

So highway officials told legislators Tuesday that if voters do not approve future indebtedness for the Interstates everyoneís highway improvements back home, from Lake Village to Salem to Jacksonville to Cabot to Beebe, will be in jeopardy.

That is because the motor fuel taxes and car and truck license fees that are now used to build and maintain primary and secondary highways supposedly will have to be diverted to pay for repairs to the big interstates, delaying the North Belt completion even further, as if it hasnít been delayed long enough.

Rep. Randy Rankin of Eudora said that did it for him. He wanted the widening of U.S. Highway 65 through his county completed, so he was voting for the Interstate debt, even though the nearest Interstate mileage was more than 100 miles away.

No one needed even a hand-held calculator to figure out the ruse. The Interstate bonds will tie up the stateís allotment of federal Interstate maintenance funds each year plus the receipts from a 4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax. Together, they make up $75 million a year. Without issuing the bonds, the Highway Commission could still spend that $75 million to improve the Interstates each year, which ought to be more than ample. Of course, the Highway Commission could, if it chose, take the $15 million a year from the diesel tax and apply it to primary and secondary roads to supplement other highway taxes.

Over the 12, 15 or 20 years that the Highway Commission would be paying off the debt, the state could spend more on the highways by spending less on interest to investors and fees to underwriters, brokers and bond lawyers. You can take a mortgage payout schedule and figure it out for yourself. Debt is costly. The only time you borrow huge sums of money is when there is an emergency or the task is so huge that you canít pay for it as you go.

So Rep. Rankin and his constituents stand a much better chance of getting a wider Highway 65 through the Delta if the bonds are defeated.
Besides, with any deference from his regionís highway commissioner, his project should be completed long before the commission gets around to actually using the new borrowing power that voters may be about to give them.