New ways to raise revenue

Two bills introduced in the Legislature last week suggest lawmakers are ramping up efforts to work with the private sector to increase state revenue.

Senate Bill 6465 would allow certain types of commercial activities at state-owned highway rest stops.

Senate Bill 6466 would allow advertising on and in school buses.

Both bills have bipartisan support, which is encouraging to see. They are examples of the type of outside-the-box thinking required, if legislators are serious about patching a $2.6 billion budget hole in the biennial budget.

Senate Bill 6465 would set the stage for the state Department of Transportation to lease space to businesses that sell goods and services that benefit the traveling public. Examples spelled out in the bill include food or beverage retailers, restaurants, grocery and convenience stores and service station businesses.

The bill would require the state Department of Transportation to contact like-minded businesses located within a mile of the highway exits on each side of a rest stop to give them the first lease option. If those businesses didn’t respond with a reasonable bid or offer within 60 days of the initial contact, the state agency would be free to open proposals up to bid or negotiations.

The bill also requires the new businesses to allow nonprofit groups that had previously conducted fundraising activities at rest stops to continue to do so. It also would require DOT to work with the Department of Services For the Blind to ensure the commercial enterprises did not cut into revenue the agency serving the blind receives from vending operations at safety rest areas.

Senate Bill 6466, allowing advertising on the side or inside a school bus, is bound to generate even more discussion and debate than the rest stop bill.

A school district could choose to participate in the program or not. A school district’s board of directors would have the final say on what advertising content or education material could be displayed on buses.

Revenue earned for school bus advertising would be placed in the school district’s general fund or the transportation vehicle fund, according to the original draft of the bill.

Finding consensus on what would be appropriate advertising on a public school bus will be difficult at best. But the program could have appeal in cash-strapped school districts.

Intercity Transit has been placing advertising on its buses for more than 15 years. The advertising program, which is contracted through outdoor advertising firms, raises a minimum of $1.25 million every five years. That’s money IT would otherwise have to raise through fare increases or sales tax increases.

Intercity Transit’s advertising program has to walk a fine line between freedom of expression and display of messages that some might find offensive. School districts would face their own set of challenges implementing an advertising program.

But the two bills aimed at enhancing state and school district revenues merit public hearings and consideration.