Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Referendum scare tactics

There are many debatable issues surrounding the interstate highway bond issue that will be on the ballot at a statewide special election Tuesday, but Gov. Huckabee apparently hopes you will not bother with them. “It comes down to this,” Huckabee said. “Do people like better highways?”

If you do, he said, you vote for the rolling borrowing authority for the state Highway Commission. If you like the rough roads you experienced on the interstate system before 1999, you should vote no.

That is a ridiculous statement, just like his reasoning that people should allow the commission to borrow money from now on without the voters’ approval because it would save taxpayers the cost of all those million-dollar special elections. The law actually anticipates that people vote on bonds at general elections, where there would be NO additional cost to taxpayers.

The governor’s characterization of the issue asks you to believe that all the interstate improvements in recent years are the result of the issuance of three series of general-obligation bonds in 2000 and 2001 totaling $575 million, which shortly will have been spent. But that is not the case.

Well before the Highway Commission got the cash from the bonds, an accelerated interstate rebuilding program had begun with stepped-up federal assistance and state matching. Those orange barrels were everywhere. Remember when Gov. Huckabee himself warned motorists that they would soon be seeing even more of the pesky but reassuring barrels?

Even since the bonds were issued, 35 percent of all the interstate work has been by the usual pay-as-you-go method rather than the bond proceeds. The Highway Commission supplemented the $575 million in bond proceeds with other federal and state tax revenues to the tune of about $330 million. If the bonds had not been issued at all, the state would have another $75 million a year to pour into construction. That is the money that pays off the bonds.

The point is that without highway bonds the vast majority — perhaps 80 percent or more — of those 356 miles of interstates that have been repaired or else are under contract would have been finished by now on the pay-as-you-go method that Huckabee says means just shoddy roads. And, if that were the case, the state would not still owe some $525 million to bondholders, which the state will be repaying through 2012.

Now, you can consider the real arguments pro and con.