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GOP lawmakers looking at bonding for $1 billion to speed up transportation projects

By Lisa Riley Roche | Posted - Feb. 28, 2017 at 7:51 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — With the 2017 Legislature set to end in just over a week, Republican lawmakers are looking at authorizing $1 billion in bonding over the next four years to speed up transportation projects.

"It's a sound investment that will pay off in future years," Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, told KSL after making presentations to closed House and Senate Republican caucuses Tuesday.

Harper, who is having a bill drafted on the bonding expected to be ready by Thursday, said he intends to leave the choice of the projects up to the Utah Transportation Commission.

But he said the money most likely will go to projects on I-15, including adding lanes and making other improvements along the freeway in Davis, Weber, Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as enhancing access to Zion and other national parks.

Getting those projects done as much as three years earlier than planned will give the economy a boost, Harper said, while saving some $20 million or so annually in expected escalations in construction costs.

"We get a big bang in both cost savings on reduced project costs plus we really get the ability to reduce some real problem areas within the state of Utah that have some real transportation challenges," Harper said.

Bonding is typically a tough sell to Republicans. In the current budget year that ends June 30, no new general obligation debt was authorized, and $325 million in existing debt was set to be paid off, according to the legislative website.

Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed $16.1 billion budget stressed the state debt paid off over six years and recommended only up to $100 million to pay for infrastructure at the new state prison being built west of Salt Lake City International Airport.

Harper, who spoke to House Republicans about the proposal with Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they "received it very well."

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, described the reaction of Senate Republicans as positive. Okerlund said they were supportive of the bill, at least in concept.

Okerlund said there was some talk in the caucus about lifting the sales tax earmark that automatically sets aside revenues for transportation projects, calling it a "possibility — not a deal, but part of the discussion."

GOP legislative leaders have been trying to put together a tax reform package that would restore the full sales tax on food and lower the earnings level where income tax exemptions are lost while cutting both sales and income tax rates.

Okerlund said the earmark issue could be part of that package, but added that it's still not ready. The proposal is intended to eventually raise more tax dollars for schools in the wake of a proposed ballot initiative to boost state income taxes.

"We aren't there yet. There is a continued discussion about how we get there," the Senate majority leader said, noting that lawmakers need to see something specific soon. "It's still possible." Email: Twitter: DNewsPolitics

Lisa Riley Roche


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