Doubling Oklahoma's road budget without raising taxes

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At a time when you get the impression that all the talk about fiscal restraint is only lip service, this should help restore your faith that some of these politicians really mean it. State Rep. Mark Liotta set out two years ago to find a way to boost state spending on roads and bridges without raising taxes. At long last Liotta's plan is expected to pass as part of the budget plan on the agenda for this week's special legislative session:

Two Years of GOP Road Work More Than Doubles Investment to Fix Crumbling Infrastructure OKLAHOMA CITY (June 19, 2006) – A state budget framework agreed to last week will invest more than $3 billion additional dollars to fix Oklahoma’s crumbling roads and bridges over the next decade – a top priority for House GOP leaders this year.

“This is the most significant improvement in road funding in state history,” said Rep. Mark Liotta (R-Tulsa), the House GOP leader who crafted the Oklahoma’s Road to the Future plan. “Over the last quarter century, our state’s investment in roads has remained flat and our roads have suffered. But in just two short years, the new Republican majority in the House has made roads and bridges a top priority.”

Without a tax increase, the state budget agreement announced last week will expand the state’s annual roads budget from $200 million to $470 million each year when fully implemented. County road money will also double, from $85 million to $170 million every year.

“The most significant aspect to this plan is that we did not tie the money to a list of political projects,” said Liotta. “No specific projects are named. We leave those decisions to our state road professionals who know the needs of the system. We have significantly eliminated the politics in road building.”

The funds accelerate a Republican program to improve Oklahoma’s roads first passed last year. And earlier this year, Republican leaders achieved $125 million for emergency bridge repairs across the state. The new money will come on top of an extra $111.8 million provided for road maintenance and bridge repair during the 2005 legislative session.

Under the Republican plan that is part of the state budget accord, the total amount of new road money guaranteed over the next several years will increase from $170 million to at least $270 million. The plan also includes a $70 million annualization of the debt service on bonds that the Department of Transportation has been forced to pay in the past out of maintenance funds.

All fuel tax dollars from gas and diesel currently funneled into the state’s general revenue will be redirected into a new high priority state bridge fund to address critical bridge projects.

“The taxpayers want to know that their fuel tax dollars are being applied to critical road needs. With this plan we are well on our way to achieving that goal,” Liotta concluded.

Fuel taxes going to pay for roads and bridges; no earmarking or "demonstration projects" (aka pork barrel); more money for maintenance; all without a tax increase. Good news all the way around.

How will the Whirled editorial board, a fervent backer of the failed plan to increase the fuel tax, spin this? Look for the following thought in an upcoming editorial: "That's good, but just think what we could accomplish if only we raised taxes."

UPDATE: I sent a question to Rep. Liotta: Doesn't this just
mean less money in the general fund for tax cuts or other spending priorities?

Here's his response:

Of Course! Road funding has been flat for over 25 years. It has literally remained at around $200 million over that period, which means road funding has been cut every single year. Nearly every other area of state spending has received massive increases over the same period. Concrete, rebar and right-of-way all cost more every year. We have not built a road in Oklahoma with appropriated state dollars in years. They have been built either with federal funds matched with toll road credits, or bond issues (a very expensive method). This has endangered our ability to receive federal matching funds and left critical maintenance undone (again, an expensive way to operate). In fact, if we had not increased road funding last year in my sub-committee, we would no longer be eligible for federal matching by 2009. So yes, I am re-establishing roads as a high priority because they have been neglected for so long, and yes, that means less money to waste on nonsense. It's time somebody stood up for roads and bridges. I know it sounds simplistic but, what good are the best schools, hospitals, and businesses if you can't get there?


D.Schuttler said:

Will they not have to restructure the tax break I thought the State was going to give us? or was the tax break my imagination going wild?

This will give them a reason to keep more of our income tax money because the fuel tax won't be going into the general fund anymore.

I'm all for this , just looking at the otherside.

Twatch said:

I just attended a joint meeting of OSPE-ASCE-IEEE, Oklahoma's Professional Engineering Societies, at which an ODOT representative discussed the critical condition of Oklahoma's roads and bridges and the chronic inadequacy of funding. The need is real. The legislature, however, has budgeted money from the energy based tax windfall and not reappropriated funds from the existing gasoline tax. The unfortunate truth is the Republican controlled House managed just an $88M tax reduction and signed on to nearly $1B in new spending. I support the effort to gain Republican control of the Oklahoma State Government, but we better pay attention to whom we elect.

Tom Elmore said:

"It's time somebody stood up for roads and bridges," says Rep. Liotta, head of the House Transportation budget subcommittee. Is that the same as standing up for fair treatment of the owners of those roads and bridges, the state's beleaguered taxpayers? Apparently not.

As Will Rogers said, the first step to getting out of a hole is to "stop digging." Representative Liotta's "plan" is manifestly more of the same old highway lobby-inspired stuff that got us into the current hole in the first place, forcing people whose vehicles don't appreciably damage public roads to foot more of the bill inflicted by the chief, overwhelming damagers, big commercial trucks. An outfit calling itself "T.R.U.S.T.," or "Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation" is the real source of this deal, with ODOT head Gary Ridley apparently functioning as one of their lobbyists. Who are they? Pretty much the same bunch who tried to sell us SQ 723 last year but who would have settled for capturing more of our tag and registration fees in previous years. It doesn't really matter to them which one of the taxpayers' pockets the money is stolen from, just as long as their trucking industry associates don't have to pay their fair share.

What sense does it make that taxpayers could ever -- ever -- afford to catch up with real roadway maintenance needs when the chief, rapidly growing source of highway and bridge damage is never called on by elected leaders to pay anything like its fair share for upkeep? What sense does it make that taxpayers would find this all to be "OK" -- if they really understood it? Is it the job of elected officials to enlighten their constituents -- or darken their way with deliberate double-talk?

A standard semi-trailer truck operating at its maximum legal weight inflicts pavement damage equivalent to 9,600 automobiles; yet, in Oklahoma, that truck has paid 3 cents less state "fuel tax" than the auto pays since 1988, and it's well-known among Liotta and his colleagues that a penny of diesel "tax" produces only one-third the revenue brought by a penny of gasoline "tax."

The word "tax" is in quotes -- because pretending road-use fees are tantamount to arbitrary taxation is part of the boldly demagogic game legislators have played for years. Plainly that hasn't changed. The "Republican House" is no better than the "Democratic House" was. An indispensible key to proper roadway managment is determining what each vehicle using those roads now pays versus what it should be paying -- and then making reforms guaranteeing accurate cost retrieval and treating those receipts as what they are: user fees. The Democrats never did it. The Republicans aren't doing it now. In short, they're just as much in the pockets of the special interests who've carefully cultivated these troubles for their own profit for years as the Dems were, but they're arguably uglier, stinkier hypocrites because of all their insufferably righteous talk.

"Liotta's plan" phases in another 15% incursion into tag and registration fee receipts for road repair. Liotta knows tag and registration receipts are levied in lieu of property taxation. He knows these moneys were never designed for road upkeep, offering no hope of cost retrieval in proportion to damage done by each class of vehicle. He knows trucking, which at least pays 22% of fuel taxes, pays only about 8.5% of yearly state tag and registration fee receipts. He surely understands that using these dollars to fund road maintenance actually forces the public to pay a larger share of the costs of truck-inflicted highway damage, rewarding trucking's bad practices by freeing it from a larger part of its cost responsibility -- and absolutely guaranteeing that truck lines will use money they should have had to pay for road use to buy more trucks, bringing more traffic and more damage next year than in previous years.

Two things are needed to ensure better roads: Accurate cost retrieval from all users and the enforcement capability to make it stick. Liotta's plan doesn't contemplate either. The "Liotta Plan" like the infamous "billion dollar highway bill" that preceeded it, will make the state highway system worse. It cannot do anything else. Of course, that's precisely what the highway contractors and their sock-puppets at ODOT are counting on.

Executive Director, NATI
Republican Chairman, Cleveland County Precinct 22

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 20, 2006 6:08 PM.

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