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Unusual idea floated: Help schools, economy, by borrowing $1 billion for roads

Published March 1, 2017 2:56 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lawmakers are floating an unusual idea about how to raise more money for Utah schools: Borrow $1 billion to accelerate already planned highway projects because that could improve the economy and increase income taxes for education.

"Once we do this, we know it's going to have a cascading benefit on economic development. It will allow for more jobs, more businesses," said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who is drafting a bill to allow that.

Harper has presented the idea to closed-door meetings of Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate. "It was very favorably received in both." But only a week is left in the Legislative session for possible review and passage.

The idea is to bond, or borrow, for $1 billion over four years, with a 15-year payback period. Harper said it would not exceed 50 percent of the state's constitutional debt limit.

The money would accelerate construction of projects already planned by the Utah Transportation Commission, which plans them out about five years in advance.

Harper notes that in past bonding efforts, lawmakers have earmarked projects themselves for such money. He said this approach would take politics out of which projects get done, and would follow the transportation commission's procedures to prioritize them based on need and benefit.

He said looking at current plans, he believes the money could accelerate such things as improvements on Interstate 15 in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah counties.

Harper said the commission would bring back plans for how it will spend the money every year to the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee for approval, and to help publicize to the public where it is going.

Harper said he and others had asked the commission if it could accelerate projects, "and it came back with the current proposal."

Main reasons to do this now, he said, are speeding needed highway improvements and generating more revenue for the state in the long run.

"It will keep the construction industry going strong," he said. "It will provide additional jobs, additional revenue that will go into the education fund in the future…. It will basically broaden the economy so we can generate more revenue for needed services."

That comes as the Our Schools Now initiative is proposing to put on the ballot a $750 million a year income tax increase for education.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert have opposed the ballot initiative, saying higher tax rates may chase away companies and hurt the economy.






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