The administration of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo is quietly exploring the creation of a new bonding program that would sell debt to finance part of his recently proposed transportation capital agenda, sources in Albany and others familiar with the effort say.

Officials in the Department of Transportation and the state Budget Division have hired Wall Street investment banking firm Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. and bond counsel Hawkins, Delafield & Wood to consider the bonding program's development, Albany sources say.

Though much of the effort remains undecided, sources with knowledge of the issue say the state, its investment bankers, and bond lawyers are trying, to establish a bonding structure in which dedicated funds, including the state's petroleum business tax, would be used to secure the new bonding program. The petroleum business tax would supply the lion's share of the dedicated money, sources say.

The petroleum business tax is the latest version of the state's gross receipts tax on petroleum products, established, in 1984. In 1991. the state changed the formula for its tax on wholesale petroleum products and renamed the levy the petroleum business tax.

Under the change, the state is supposed to use the money in its general fund until 1993, when it would divide the funds between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state Department of Transportation. But Cuomo's recent transportation plan would allow the state to use more of the money for the general fund.

One key element of the plan still undecided is where the funding will come from. Sources in Albany say the state plans to establish a new bonding authority to sell the securities or use one already in existence.

As part of these discussions, the Cuomo administration may expand the Thruway Authority's bonding power to include transportation, Albany sources say. At the moment, the authority has two classes of bonds: one backed by toll revenues, and another in which debt service is paid through a state appropriation.

Last summer, lawmakers expanded the Thruway Authority's role to include economic development in areas along the state's canal system. Voters approved the authorization in November 1991.

Additionally, the Cuomo administration is discussing the sale of transportation debt through the New York State Bridge Authority, which operates the five Hudson River crossings north of the Tappan Zee Bridge. The bridge connects Westchester and Rockland counties.

The new debt program is an outgrowth of Cuomo's $20.7 billion proposal to fund transportation improvements around the state.

Under the governor's plan, announced earlier this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would spend $8.6 billion on capital needs, while the state Department of Transportation would require $12.1 billion for capital improvements during the next five years.

The proposed debt program would emerge as the bonding vehicle for the transportation departments plan to rebuild highways bridges, and other aspects of the state's transportation infrastructure.

But unlike the state's public benefit corporations, the Department of Transportation is an agency of state government. As a result, it would have to issue general obligation bonds under the imprimatur of the state's taxing power - and receive voter approval.

But if Cuomo has his way, the department's bonding would be sold through a new public benefit corporation or some existing entity. According to a Dec. 3 press release announcing the governor's transportation proposal, the state plans to issue 94 billion in bonds during the next seven years to finance the department's capital needs.

The press release also says that under the transportation plan, the state would "leverage the [petroleum business tax] funds, by issuing bonds to finance highway and bridge programs over seven years."

Leveraging allows the state to sell more bonds than it has in available revenues. in 1993. for example, the state will raise $701 million through the petroleum business tax.

Charles Porcari, a spokesman for the governor, confirmed that the administration is considering a new bonding program, and possibly a separate bonding authority, as part of a wider package of debt reforms. He said Cuomo will present the program to lawmakers on Jan. 19, 1993, when the governor releases his fiscal 1994 budget. The fiscal year begins April 1.

"This is something that will be presented in January with the budget," Porcari said. "The specifics will not be available until the budget is released."

To be sure, any effort to increase the state's debt load will face scrutiny from fiscal watchdog groups, as well as the state's Republican comptroller, Edward V. Regan. The comptroller battled Cuomo over the merits of the governor's $800 million infrastructure bond act, known as the Jobs for the New, New York Bond Act.

Regan termed the act, which was rejected by voters during the November election, as fiscally unsound given the state's reliance in recent years on appropriated debt and other budget-balancing gimmicks. Appropriated debt, unlike general obligation securities, is not backed by the state's taxing authority and is often sold at higher interest rates.

Marvin Nailor, a press secretary for the comptroller, said the office "has not seen any proposal. We can't comment until we see what it is."

Meanwhile, the governor's transportation plan has received stiff opposition from the Republican-controlled state Senate.

The Senate, for the most part, opposes the governor's planned diversion of the petroleum business tax revenues away from transportation-related spending for use in balancing the state's fiscal 1994 budget, At the moment, state budget officials say the fiscal 1994 deficit could range anywhere from $2 billion to $4 billion.

The state had promised in 1991 that it would use the petroleum business tax for pay-as-you-go transportation capital spending beginning in 1993, and earmark the money for a "lock box" that would finance the capital needs of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state Transportation Department.

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