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The bottom line on state bond issues: decades of debt for taxpayers

IF Massachusetts lawmakers could spend only those dollars the commonwealth has in hand, the legislative year would be a lot shorter. There isn't much that lawmakers do these days that does not involve spending, or borrowing.

At a time when America's whopping $2.4 trillion national debt is the focus of national attention, Massachusetts may be moving quietly along a no-less-perilous course. Right now the state owes a record $6 billion; that's about $1,000 for every person in the state.

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Another nearly $4.9 billion in long-range borrowing has been authorized - at least $1.1 billion of this during the past 10 months. And further bonding authorizations totaling nearly $2 billion are pending.

That's a potential state debt of $12.9 billion, which could weaken the state's credit rating and make it harder for Massachusetts to sell its bonds at favorable rates.

The climbing state debt should concern taxpayers who must bear interest and principle charges. This year they amount to more than $550 million.

While most spending projects can be justified, some are more urgent than others. But legislators have shied away from making that distinction. That leaves the decision to the executive branch, if not the governor himself. Once a bond authorization has cleared the legislature, there is nothing lawmakers can do to speed up, slow down - or cancel a project.

Because of this, smaller bonding measures for long-range programs might be in order. Also worth considering is a recent suggestion by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) to restrict bonding authorization to projects that can be ``reasonably expected to be under construction within the next two years.''

Such a requirement would force state bureaucrats to do a better job convincing lawmakers of the urgency of proposals to build, expand, or improve facilities within their domain.

It makes no sense to approve borrowing for a project that might not get under way for several years. As the MTF points out, by the time work begins, construction costs could be substantially higher than the amount authorized and it would be necessary to go back to the legislature for more money.

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Lawmakers might also consider capping the amount of debt the commonwealth can carry. That would force officials to establish priorities among those projects competing for authorized bond money. In that way those buying Massachusetts general-obligation bonds, those to which the full faith and credit of the state is pledged, could be assured some future administrations would not get the commonwealth into debt trouble.

Unless written into the Massachusetts constitution, however, it is questionable how effective a debt lid would be, since lawmakers probably would raise the bonding ceiling from time to time.

Another possible means of getting a firm grip on the state's debt and potential debt might be through a constitutional requirement that all bonding proposals approved by the legislature would need ratification by a majority of the voters at the next state election.

Several states, including neighboring Rhode Island as well as New Jersey with which Massachusetts is frequently compared, have this arrangement.

If all bonding proposals required voter approval, some just might not make it, and those that did might be able to move more expeditiously. It would be up to those promoting various proposals to sell their pet projects to the public instead of perhaps to just a few influential senators and representatives.

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