by Murrel Bland
Is the state of Kansas spending enough money on its roads? That depends on who you talk to.
If you talk to Mike King, the Kansas secretary of transportation, the answer is yes. King is a former owner of a construction company; he serves at the pleasure of Gov. Sam Brownback.
If you talk to Duane Goossen, the senior fellow at the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, (KCEG), the answer is no. Goossen is a former Kansas legislator and state budget director for three Kansas governors.
King was a guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Congressional Forum. He bristled when asked if it was bad policy for the state government to be taking money from the highway fund to pay for general government expenses. He pointed out that money has been taken from the Kansas Department of Transportation to meet general obligations since Mike Hayden was governor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The official line from the Kansas Department of Commerce points out that the 2010 Kansas Legislature approved the $7.8 billion “T-Works” program for the next ten years. These funds include $2.5 billion in new revenue that will come from increased registration for heavy trucks, additional bonding authority and a sales tax deposit.
The comment from the KCEG is that Gov. Sam Brownback’s manipulations of draining $1.2 billion from the highway fund during budget years 2015, 2016 and 2017 is “taking a toll on the health of our highways.” The lobbying group charged that the money from the highway fund is failing to solve the state’s real fiscal problems.
Funding for the Kansas Department of Transportation comes from the 24-cent a gallon fuel tax, vehicle registration fees and a portion of sales tax. The money goes for maintenance, preservation and expansion. Although the T-Works program appears to be moving ahead in Wyandotte and Johnson counties, there is a serious lack of funds for the preservation of existing roads and bridges in other areas of the state according to KCEG.
The Kansas Contractors Association also has sounded the alarm about the governor’s striping out highway funds. Bob Totten, the executive vice president for the contractors, said various needs for repaving and bridge repairs would go unmet.
Moderate Republicans and Democrats have criticized Gov. Brownback for eliminating income taxes from small businesses, saying that it has done little to stimulate the economy. They also point out that this experiment has continued to cause a substantial decrease in revenue and resulted in a severe budget crisis. They argue that Kansas has always had a “three-legged stool” when it comes to taxes with a balance among property, income and sales taxes. State Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-33rd Dist., who is also house minority leader, has said, “one leg is broken.”
State Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-36th Dist., said in her recent newsletter that she voted against the unbalanced budget proposal because it “relies on irresponsible, one-time sources and does not meet the long-term needs of the state.” The budget bill barely passed 63-59 in the Kansas House of Representatives.
In addition to problem areas such as funds for highways, the Kansas Supreme Court has given the Kansas Legislature and the governor a June 30 deadline to provide equitable funds for public schools. This would mean that the legislators would have to come up with another $40 million out of an already tight budget.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is the executive director of Business West.