Road bond issue may be in trouble
Take a drive around West Virginia. Any questions about whether we need to spend a lot of money repairing and improving highways and bridges?
But it may not happen. Why? Taxes and toll roads.
For a while after Gov. Jim Justice and legislators set the stage for sale of $1.6 billion in bonds for the purpose, it seemed as if we were on the brink of a major road and bridge construction program. But it is in jeopardy and, unless I miss my guess, the danger of voters rejecting the bond issue is growing daily.
We’ll see on Oct. 7, when a special election is held to ask voters how they feel about issuing bonds. Unless they approve, there will be no bond sale and no highway improvement project.
Just last month, the state Republican Executive Committee approved a resolution critical of the bond proposal. The measure passed by a 99-1 vote.
Party leaders are concerned that if the state sells the bonds to investors, taxes will be increased to make the payments. Technically, that’s possible.
But as the governor and GOP legislators have pointed out, increases in fuel taxes and some Division of Motor Vehicles fees were approved this year. They are expected to bring in about $132 million a year. That is about $3.3 billion during the 25-year repayment period envisioned for the bonds.
In other words, existing taxes should be more than adequate to pay off the $1.6 billion in bonds.
Now, technically, the GOP Executive Committee is right. Should West Virginia sell the bonds, the state is legally bound to repay investors. If, for some unforeseen reason, the tax and fee increases already in place don’t provide enough revenue, new taxes could be needed.
But at the local and state levels, voters have faced that same situation many times in the past, with everything from state road bonds to local school construction programs. I don’t recall ever hearing of a time when new taxes in addition to those voters were told about in advance had to be collected to repay bonds.
Legislators and Justice made a good-faith, realistically calculated move to ensure more new taxes would not be needed to repay the $1.6 billion in bonds. I have no problem with that.
But as we know, the political environment has changed. Many voters have lost faith entirely in government. How many will decide they don’t believe in the plan to pay off road bonds with no new taxes?
Toll roads are another concern. Some legislators worry that a measure approved this year, involving the West Virginia Parkways Authority, could give that body the power to charge tolls on certain roads.
Delegates Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, and Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, both voted against the WVPA bill because they worry it may lead to Interstate 70 through Ohio County being converted into a toll road.
That would be a bad move for the local economy, of course. But Storch and McGeehan are right to worry about the WVPA rules. It certainly appears the authority may have the power to open new toll booths on some roads.
That, too, could sour some voters on the bond issue.
What can legislators and the governor do about those two challenges?
First, Justice and leading lawmakers should pledge to amend the WVPA rules to make new toll roads impossible to establish without specific legislative approval.
Second, they need to get a grassroots campaign moving to explain why it is highly unlikely new taxes would be needed to repay the bonds.
And third, they need to make it clear a substantial amount of road bond funds will be used to repair existing highways and bridges — not to build new ones that provide photo-ops for the politicians. Many voters just want the roads they travel every day to be repaired.
Five or 10 years ago, state officials would have had no trouble gaining voter approval to sell the bonds. But Justice, of all people, ought to understand dislike and distrust of government have increased to the point that this year, the bond proposal may well be in trouble.
Mike Myer can be reached at email@example.com.