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Transportation funding short; tax increase possible

December 11, 2001
By: Robert Sandler
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's Highways and Transportation Commission isn't sure it can pay for $450 million worth of bonds it had planned to issue for future construction.

The commission has put off until next month a decision on whether to recommend that the legislature approve a bond sale for new road and bridge construction.

Missouri Transportation Department Director Henry Hungerbeeler told the commission that his department could not be sure it would be able to pay off the bonds.

He blamed the uncertainty on weaker economic conditions and a decline in tax revenue. The lack of money flowing into transportation coffers has led Morris Westfall, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, R-Halfway, to consider a tax increase.

"I don't like tax increases, but I've also been a realist in recognizing need and this is obviously pointing to a need," he said.

Westfall said any tax increase he might support would be subject to a statewide vote.

Jeff Briggs, department spokesman, said Tuesday the department has been cutting costs due to cuts in the overall state budget.

"What we hope to do is to cut enough costs so that we can trim down to be more efficient but at the same time make sure we don't cut any of our basic services," Briggs said.

A hiring review and reducing equipment are some of the ways in which it has reduced spending, he said.

Westfall said he was disappointed that the money wasn't there, but understood the commission's decision.

"If there's not the money there to pay for the bonds, I would expect the commission and the (department) director to practice good sound management," Westfall said. "If they're saying they haven't got the money to be prudent or to practice good management, then they need to go slowly to figure out this thing."

Hungerbeeler warned the commission that if it tried to get the entire $450 million in bonds sold, it might put the department in a dangerous financial position.

"The commisssion's credit rating depends in part on the level of revenue; we want to avoid jeopardizing the rating, which could increase the cost of future borrowing," Hungerbeeler said.

Westfall said that while he wishes the department still had enough funds to complete the bond sale, he considers it a good financial decision.

"I'm not an advocate of going into debt when we can't pay it back, and that's what we're doing with the bond issue," Westfall said.

The department expected to sell the bonds as the third wave in a plan that has already raised $450 million for transportation -- with another $200 million in bonds authorized, but not yet sold.

The measure passed by the legislature a couple of years ago would allow the department to issue $2.25 billion worth of bond sales in a five-year period.

Briggs said the legislature has to decide by the end of January if it should proceed with the bond sale, so the commission hopes to make a recommendation one way or another when it meets next month.