Transportation bond on life support

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AUGUSTA – Like a Monty Python skit running over and over again on late-night television, efforts to send a $60 million transportation bond to voters this fall refuse to die.

Earlier in the day and after long debate, the House reaffirmed its decision from the day before to eliminate the bond proposal. The Senate followed suit later in the day, on a tight 18-17 vote.

But immediately after its defeat, the transportation budget was tabled until today, giving proponents of new borrowing for bridges and highways another chance.

As part of the negotiations over the state’s supplemental budget, Democratic leaders and members of the Appropriations Committee agreed that they would not support any bonds this year. Their opposition and a nearly united Republican Party have so far stymied the bonds.

The Transportation Committee, however, disregarded the leadership deal and moved forward a proposal to use a $60 million revenue anticipation bond to fund a backlog of highway and bridge construction projects. The bond would leverage future highway funds from the federal government for money up front.

The Senate debate matched the intensity of that in the House, where members favoring a bond implored their colleagues to support increased investment in the state’s infrastructure.

Opponents questioned the wisdom of new borrowing and chided members to remember the deal they had made as part of successful budget negotiations.

“I’ve been around this place for a few years,” said Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “This is the first time I can remember that we’ve so married the transportation budget with the General Fund budget.”

According to House Transportation Chairman Boyd Marley, the bond would provide enough money for projects in about 100 communities, while also protecting as many as 3,000 construction jobs.

Rep. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, summed up the counter argument, relying on his experience as a businessman.

“Nothing will put you out of business any quicker than debt. I believe that applies to government,” he said. “We’re in desperate need of money to fix roads, but are we going to have the economy to repay this debt?”

As part of the supplemental budget, lawmakers approved spending $15 million from the General Fund and $15 million from the Highway Fund on repairs. The $60 million bond would fill the gap between that expenditure and the amount necessary to cover the Department of Transportation’s project list.

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