Given the state’s abysmal track record with fiscal matters, should voters hand lawmakers a blank check by approving the largest-ever borrowing proposal in New York’s history this November?
Certainly not. In fact, it’s unconscionable that state officials are asking voters to pass the $3.8 billion transportation bond without first telling them precisely where the money would go. Instead, state officials are trying to bury the anticipated bond money in a massive $34.2 billion five-year plan for improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. The rest of the money is expected to come from federal aid, gas tax receipts and other sources of revenue, including fees from drivers licenses and car registrations.
But rather than produce a specific list of projects if voters approve the bonded portion of the funds, the Legislature merely released a list of all the projects that it wants to tackle under the overall $34.2 billon plan.
‘‘Voters will know, kind of, what they are getting for their approval’’ of the bond, says Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno.
Geez, that’s certainly encouraging for the residents of a state that has already racked up about $37 billion in debt, the largest of any state in the nation. Each year, that debt costs the state about $4 billion in debt-service payments — money that could be used for education, social services and, yes, even transportation, if the state hadn’t borrowed so much in the past. In contrast, second-ranked California has $21.6 billion in debt and a population twice New York’s to bear it.
‘Pay as you go’ the right way
Besides, New York lawmakers are also unclear exactly how much additional interest taxpayers would have to shoulder on the debt that the transportation bond act would incur. That in itself should certainly make voters wary of this plan.
What’s more, despite revenues pouring in from the strong economy, the state continues to spend too much annually, putting off the tough long-term decisions that could pay off the existing debt faster. For example, this year’s $77.5 billion budget raised spending by more than double the inflation rate. The state is spending recklessly during heady economic times and is providing a whole host of tax cuts in the short term while asking the voters to approve more debt in the long run. This makes no sense whatsoever.
Without question, the entire transportation plan includes some important initiatives. In general terms, half the money would go toward roads, bridges and the state canal system, and the other half would go to mass transit projects in New York City and its suburbs. The largest projects involve new subway cars for New York City, a new subway line on the East Side of Manhattan and construction work to transform Route 17 into Interstate 86 along the Southern Tier.
Local projects would benefit too, including a plan to directly link I-84 and I-87 in Newburgh, new transit buses in the City of Poughkeepsie, and a Carpenter Road overpass over the Taconic State Parkway in East Fishkill, to name a few. But most of these transportation projects would be funded through the other revenue sources that don’t involve bonding. Yet, in a thinly veiled threat to communities counting on these projects, lawmakers are saying the entire transportation package would have to be reassessed if voters reject the bond.
Fine. Let them reassess it. This would force lawmakers to make the responsible choices they would get to avoid if the bond passes. The bottom line here is the state must put itself on a ‘‘pay-as-you-go’’ spending plan. It is currently taking in enough revenues to finance the bulk of these projects. In fact, annual budget surpluses have been running between $500 million and $2 billion in recent years. But if the economy turns sour, the added debt from another bond act would only make it more difficult for future Legislatures to deal with a financial crunch.
New York lawmakers have done precious little to demonstrate they can make the right choices when it comes to the state’s finances. They amassed a huge debt and, for years now, have shown they can’t even adopt a budget on time.
For the benefit of future generations, and to instill more fiscal discipline on state government’s spending habits, New Yorkers would be wise to reject this transportation bond act.
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