Monday, June 30, 2008

Failing to Pave County Roads

Earlier this year, I wrote to you about House Bill 3342 which purported to fix a problem with the way roads are funded in Oklahoma. Each year, about $447 million are collected in motor vehicle fees. These fees are then used for the state government's general fund. House Bill 3342 would have redirected $227 million of this money back to funding roads, where it belongs.

I have always strongly supported using all road-related user fees for the purpose of funding roads. A recent survey of House District 31 constituents found that an overwhelming number feel the same way.

It is important to note that many section line roads remain unpaved. For example, according to recently produced facts, approximately 16% of Logan county roads are hard surfaced. Of the 229 county-maintained bridges, 125 are structurally deficient and 8 are functionally obsolete. Only 30% of county roads in the entire state of Oklahoma are hard surfaced.

This problem is set to worsen, as the Legislature was unfortunately not willing to make the hard choice of redirecting the user fees back to their proper place. Instead, the Legislature took the financially irresponsible step of issuing new debt and approved a bond issue of $25 million. It appears that the $25 million will be set aside in a special fund available to County Commissioners who can borrow from it if their projects are approved by a majority of Commissioners within their regional Circuit Engineering Districts. Not only must this money be paid back, but it appears that it will not have a significant impact on paving roads. The fund is supposed to beavailable to Commissioners in time of emergency.

Remember that state government sits on its $500 million reserve fund which is supposed to be used in times of emergencies. I feel that it is nothing short of insanity to place the taxpayers in debt for the next 15 years in order to set up a second fund for emergencies. Imagine if as part of your personal budget you had a fund set aside for emergencies. Would you then go and borrow money to place in a second emergency fund? Of course not.

By indebting the taxpayers, the politicians are able to claim that they are working to solve the road problem. Many in the public will simply think that $25 million has been budgeted for roads, without realizing there will be little or no difference in actual road maintenance.

This has also allowed politicians to sidestep the tough challenge of reducing government spending from the general fund in order to stop the very inappropriate policy of misusing the motor vehicle user fees.

And now, because the government will be saddled with paying back this new unnecessary debt for the next 15 years, it will be harder than ever to force politicians to make the hard choices of exposing the government inefficiencies so that roads can be properly funded.

I believe that all new debt spending should be approved by the people. As the Legislature continues to incur more and more debt, it will be much harder for true government reform to occur in the future.

In the meantime, those of us who support the proper funding of roads have our work cut out for us. I look forward to the challenge.

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