Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kansas legislators funding government from road fund

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — Over the past five years, Kansas legislators have taken more than $1 billion from the State Highway Fund to pay for other functions of state government.

And in the current and next fiscal years, Gov. Sam Brownback is calling for a transfer of another $527 million.

That money could fund a number of functions, including busing kids to school and a proposal to landscape the Statehouse grounds and pay a portion of the Statehouse renovation.

Legislators commonly refer to the fund, overseen by the Kansas Department of Transportation, as the "bank of KDOT."

State Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, said some of the withdrawals need to stop.

"For a long period of time, the Legislature has been borrowing, stealing, confiscating, call it what you will," from the highway fund, said Peck, who chairs the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee.

Last week, Peck tried to stop a proposal by Brownback to transfer $20 million from the highway fund to help pay for Statehouse renovation bonds.

Others on the House Appropriations Committee pushed back. "The plain fact is I don't know where to find $20 million," said state Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park.

Meanwhile, KDOT officials say the transfers have not affected the state's 10-year, $8 billion comprehensive transportation plan, called T-WORKS.

The current fiscal year budget represents the fourth year of the program. It's the largest year for construction lettings with three major projects scheduled, including the $130 million South Lawrence Trafficway, which will connect Interstate 70 northwest of the city with Kansas Highway 10 east of town.

Jerry Younger, deputy secretary of KDOT and state transportation engineer, said the T-WORKS plan was based on inflation rates and bids that were projected at a higher rate than what really happened.

Since the costs have been less than projected, the number of projects hasn't been affected, he said.

"We are still on schedule and on budget and confident we are going to deliver the work as promised," Younger said.

But could more roads have been built or improved if money hadn't been transferred?

Younger concedes that more projects could have been pursued, but he said KDOT doesn't have a specific list of projects.

KDOT receives its funding from a portion of the state sales tax, motor fuels taxes, federal funds, permit fees, bond proceeds and local funds.

Dan Watkins, co-chair of Economic Lifelines, the coalition that supports the comprehensive transportation plan, said the dependence on the highway fund to help balance the state budget is not healthy.

"There is a danger that KDOT will continue to be the bank used to fund deficits," said Watson, referring to the overall state budget.

Democrats say that Brownback's cuts in income tax rates and elimination of income taxes for certain businesses will drive deficits in future years, while Brownback says the cuts will fuel economic growth.

Watson said that although KDOT has benefited from lower-than-expected bids and inflation rates for the first years of the comprehensive transportation plan, the plan could be hit by bids and inflation that exceed projections in the later years of the plan.

And, he said, the use of nearly $100 million per year from the highway fund for school bus costs "is going to be a hard habit to break."