Raimondo’s toll proposal is too risky, GOP argues

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Crumbling Warren Avenue bridge_173116

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s House Republicans on Monday offered their alternative to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s stalled proposal to pay for bridge repairs with a new toll on trucks, saying the Democratic governor’s plan poses too many risks to taxpayers.

Under an amendment GOP lawmakers plan to bring up during Tuesday’s House budget debate, the state would redirect $60 million into a new bridge repair and maintenance fund. They say the House should commit to allocating that amount in each budget for the next 12 years to provide about $720 million for bridge repairs over that period.

The Republicans would come up with the $60 million during the 2015-16 budget year, which starts July 1, by “scooping” $38.1 million from the accounts of various quasi-public bodies such as the R.I. Clean Water Finance Agency; cutting $15 million in state personnel costs; and making smaller cuts to health, DMV and lottery spending.

Rep. Patricia Morgan, the lead spokesperson for the amendment, acknowledged the Republicans have not identified how to find the $60 million in future budget years. “We haven’t looked at that yet,” she said. The House should commit to finding the money when the time comes, she said.

The amendment faces long odds on the House floor, where Republican budget amendments are almost always beaten back by the chamber’s supermajority of Democratic lawmakers. The GOP caucus holds just 12 of the chamber’s 75 seats. No Democrats have signed onto their proposal.

State Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, told reporters the measure is partly symbolic. “At a bare minimum, this lets the public understand not just that we as Republicans are thinking of different ways of doing some of the necessary things, but that indeed there are different ways of doing these necessary things,” he said.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello – who already rejected an earlier effort by the governor to “scoop” the same money from quasi-public agencies to balance the budget – quickly shot down the GOP plan Monday.

“This is not a viable, sustainable, thoughtful solution that will properly address our critical infrastructure needs,” Mattiello, D-Cranston said in a statement. “I applaud the governor for proposing a realistic plan, but we still need more time to carefully review and address many concerns that were expressed at the House Finance Committee hearing. We did not include her plan in the budget, but I do intend to address it separately.”

“Representative Morgan’s $60 million amendment, introduced one day before the budget is being considered, is not a realistic solution to our road and bridge needs,” he added. “It is certainly not ready for introduction into the budget.”

Raimondo’s proposal calls for Rhode Island to borrow $700 million to spend on bridge repairs over the next 10 years by floating a bond, with the money to repay it coming from a new toll on commercial trucks. Mattiello has expressed general support for the idea but said more needs to be done to mitigate the impact on local companies.

Marie Aberger, a spokeswoman for Raimondo, said the GOP proposal isn’t enough.

“While we appreciate that House Republicans recognize the critical need for additional funding to repair our roads and bridges, scraping together one-time dollars this year won’t solve our problem,” she said. “This amendment is like treating a broken bone with a couple of aspirins: we might feel slightly better for a few minutes, but it won’t address the long-term problem.”

With Rhode Island having the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country, Aberger argued, “we need a steady and predictable source of funding.”

The Republicans used Monday’s news conference to raise a number of concerns about Raimondo’s original proposal. They said lenders will require the state to actually borrow $900 million as a precaution in case toll revenue runs short, and then there will be an estimated $35 million to $45 million in yearly interest payments on the bond.

“That’s a lot of money that will be wasted and will not go towards bridge repairs,” Morgan said. “We think that’s the wrong way to go, because we think we can get the money from our budget.”

“Whenever you put out a bond it is more expensive to do whatever project you are trying to do,” she said. “Much better to take it from current expenditures than to try to bond it out.”

The overall cost of the debt financing wasn’t the Republicans’ only critique, however. They also raised the possibility that toll revenue will run short of the governor’s estimate – about $100 million a year – leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab for the rest of the debt payments. That could lead state officials to start tolling passengers vehicles despite assurances to the contrary by Raimondo and Mattiello, they warned.

“If the revenue doesn’t hold up, if a recession hits and trucks aren’t on the road and we need to find money to pay off those bonds, we may in future legislatures allow tolling of cars, tolling of smaller trucks,” Morgan said. “That’s the moral hazard. Once the [toll] gantries are up, just a change in the software program could add more victims to the tolls.”

Chippendale said the Republicans are generally supportive of Raimondo’s call for repairing a large number of bridges as quickly as possible.

“There are bridges that are so devastatingly decrepit that we fear driving over them,” Chippendale said. He added: “You’re putting your life in your hands when you go over some of these bridges.”

The GOP budget amendment emerged a day before the House’s 75 lawmakers are set to debate and approve a new state budget, their biggest task of the year. The $8.67-billion measure sailed through committee unanimously last week.

House spokesman Larry Berman said Monday just 20 proposed budget amendments were filed ahead of Tuesday’s session, nine of them by House leaders “to fix technical issues,” suggesting the floor debate could be relatively uneventful.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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