DALLAS -- Oklahoma lawmakers will consider a general obligation bond program of up to $500 million during the upcoming spring session, one year after rejecting a smaller capital program proposed by Gov. David Walters.
Legislative aides said that while there is no specific proposal at this time, lawmakers are likely to approve a November ballot for a bond program if a new revenue stream is found to pay debt service. Last spring, lawmakers killed a proposed $300 million GO program backed by Gov. Walters because it would have required committing cigarette tax money once used for debt service that now flow to the state's general fund.
"They want to find out what is going to secure this," said Jim Joseph, the state's bond adviser, who said he believes lawmakers will ask voters to approve a bond program. "I think they're going to look at all sources."
Oklahoma debt is secured by a GO pledge of all state revenues and by a pledge of 12 cents of the state's 26-cent cigarette tax.
In fiscal 1991, the tax generated $31.9 million for debt service, but only $10.1 million was needed to retire the state's shrinking debt. This year, the state will need $7.3 million of that money.
Mr. Joseph said the cigarette tax is a shrinking revenue source that should not be used to secure the next major bond progrm, which he estimates would require $44 million annually if the bonds have a 20-year final maturity. He said a permanent revenue source could also give the state money for pay-as-you-go capital funding -- something it has never had.
So far, however, no one has taken the lead in sponsoring a debt proposal. Unlike a year ago, Gov. Walters is not making a specific proposal yet. "He will take a look at anything that is proposed," a spokesman said last week.
Aides say a GO program is likely to range from $300 million to $500 million, with proceeds earmarked largely for higher education needs and other high-profile projects.
"With a debt program of that size, people are only going to be persuaded to vote for it if they can see the benefits," said an aide to the Senate Finance Committee. "We want voters to be able to see what their money is paying for."
The last time Oklahomans approved a GO program was in 1968, when then-Gov. Dewey Bartlett backed a $99.8 million bond plan called Health and Education for a Richer Oklahoma, or HERO. That program committed two-thirds of the proceeds to college projects.
Because voters have been so debt-shy, Oklahoma will retire the remaining $11.465 million of its last GO program in 1996. All told, the state has a total net tax-supported debt of $91.87 million as of Sept. 30, Mr. Joseph said.
As a result, Oklahoma ranks 45th nationally, with a per capita debt of $65, according to Moody's Investors Service.
Mr. Joseph said that even with a $500 million bond program -- which would give the state a sixfold increase in debt -- the double-A rated credit would still have a debt burden below the Moody's national average of $345 for states.
"That would push the debt ratio up around the medians, because we have so little now," he said.
Whether such a large program would affect the state's rating or its efforts to regain the triple-A it lost during the 1980s oil bust is not clear.
"There is room there to handle the amount of debt they are proposing without jeopardizing their [current] debt rating," said Jay Abrams, vice president at Standard & Poor's Corp. "I don't think that is an unnecessary amount of debt to carry."