Utah lawmakers planning $1 billion in transportation spending

Utah State CapitolTake a deep breath, Utah legislative watchers.

The final seven working days of the 2017 general session could bring so many new reforms and programs that this session may really be one for the record books.

The latest:

  • UtahPolicy is told GOP caucuses in the House and Senate are looking at a “ big lift” — $1 billion — in transportation spending, which would include multi-year bonding akin to what was done in 2006, the last big state road bond.

    Through a cascading effect on stimulating the economy and job growth, and where Utah taxes flow, such an effort could add over time tens of millions of dollars to public schools – thus ameliorating a real political headache for GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

  • UtahPolicy is also told that the newly-revived state, county, and city homeless effort will aim to have only two years of state funding, not the original three.

“It will mean significant savings overall,” is what UPD was told by a top House leader.

GOP legislative leaders committed last year to $28 million over three years, with the money going towards building several new homeless shelters.

Now the four-site plan is dropped down to three new buildings (two in Salt Lake City, one in Salt Lake County outside of the city, and expansion and refurbishing of the current Midvale shelter.)

This year’s state tab will be higher than the anticipated $9.6 million – probably closer to around $10 million.

  • House GOP caucus members want to look at more than just three taxes in the Senate backed effort of broadening the state sales and income tax bases and lowering the rates.

    “Everything is on the table,” one House Republican says. How that will turn out is still way up in the air.

  • And as first reported in UtahPolicy Tuesday afternoon, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, believes he has consensus on tearing down the Zion Curtain in many Utah restaurants that serve alcohol.

Any one of the above could be considered a successful general session accomplishment.

Ideas are coming fast and furious, with all kinds of issues rushing to the March 9 midnight adjournment.

The idea of an extensive four-year transportation bonding program is most intriguing.

And it would solve one immediate concern: The newly-raised state gasoline tax is not coming near to funding needed road repairs and expansions.

Even if legislators lower the gasoline tax “head” – adopted several years ago with the idea of keeping the gas tax slowing increasing with road cost inflation – that doesn’t make up for the sales tax monies still needed for roads.

The bonding bill will be sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville.

“I’ve been against bonding” in recent years, Harper told UPD Tuesday night. “But this is a good program brought to us by the (state) Transportation Commission.”

The General Obligation bonds would be issued over four years, and as old bonds are paid off the new transportation bonds would be issued, so, in reality, the state would not be taking on considerable new debt overall.

The road bond would not directly result in more state funds to education. However, $1 billion in road construction would help the Utah economy. And just like the 2006 road building – much of it rebuilding I-15 in Utah County – helped stimulate the local job market, so would this plan.

More well-paying jobs mean more personal income taxes, which means more money for schools.

As UtahPolicy readers know, the Our Schools Now citizen initiative petition aims at voters in the 2018 general election raising their own income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.875 percent.

That would increase K-12 spending by around $750 million a year.

GOP transportation plans would not come near that amount, nor would any kind of sales or income tax reforms – which are aimed to be revenue-neutral the first year in place.

None of the GOP lawmakers’ revenue plans are direct tax increases.

State road bonds would have to be paid back, but the state has an AAA rating – the highest – and so gets low-interest rates.

And legislators have been paying off outstanding bonds quicker than called for the past several years with huge revenue surpluses.

Those surpluses are drying up this year, with almost no one-time cash to build new state buildings.

Harper said his bond bill should come out Thursday, “giving us time” before the end of the session “for robust discussions.”

In any case, hold on folks, there is a lot happening over the next week.