September 18, 2008

On the Road to Nowhere

Justin Katz

The powers that be should pay some attention when Tom Sgouros and I agree on something:

Counting debt service paid from within the department's budget, we now pay almost $100 million every year in DOT interest payments. How does that make you feel about borrowing $40 million more next year? Do you think that's a sensible way to run the state? ...

So how did we get to this pass? Simple: we allowed politicians to pretend they were managing our finances in a responsible fashion while they borrowed way past any reason to spend freely on expensive roads and bridges while pinching pennies on the public transit that could save us all money and time. I'm tired of these games, and intend to vote no on the transportation bond, this November. Please join me.

We differ, of course, on some particulars. It's difficult, for example, to lament spending "freely on expensive roads and bridges" when those roads and bridges give the physical impression of neglect. Similarly, Sgouros's angle is that Rhode Island borrows the money to procure federal funds, so as to keep the financial spicket open, whereas I'd point out that the state could accomplish that end without borrowing, the implication being that underlying reason transportation is put at the bottom of the list for financial allocations is because it's an easy sell for more money.

The state spends its money on other, less-fundamental things (such as employee benefits, various resident give-aways, and sops to those in power) and puts forward transportation bonds as a "good deal" because they bring federal dollars and devote money to infrastructure that all citizens know to be substandard. Sgouros would probably take umbrage at my use of the phrase "less-fundamental" when it comes to union contracts and the welfare state.

Be that as it may, the game should be up, and we should refuse all bonds, whether transportation or otherwise. If a project or investment is a good deal for the state, then the state ought to be treating it as part of its regular budget.

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Don't state gas taxes - which reasonably should be used to support roads in the state - go into the general (slush) fund?
The interesting question would be - if gas tax revenues were devoted to roads and to matching the available Federal funds, would the DOT have to borrow? Or would some other department go deeper into the revenue hole?
Not too hard to see what I suspect. remember that we have amongst the highest state gas tax rates. Only PA and NY are higher.

Posted by: chuckR at September 18, 2008 10:25 AM

Great observation, ChuckR.

Siphoning off the gas tax proceeds (pun intended) to the general fund is much like how the General Assembly also siphons off the “911” money that they tax out of our phone bill. Or how (at least for a while) the kleptos at the GA were also grabbing the “wildlife fund” type donation proceeds that appear on state tax returns.

Infrastructure is one of the “Storm fronts” I mention that are colliding to hit Rhode Island with a “Perfect Storm” of fiscal collapse (and thus economic collapse). Those postings are under September 15 “The Beginning of Actual Change” and if you haven’t already read that thread may I humbly suggest it to your attention.

I haven’t voted for any state or local (spending) bond issue in several years, and don’t intend to anytime in the foreseeable future.

Posted by: Tom W at September 18, 2008 12:37 PM
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