Sen. Kevin Braun on Tuesday took a jackhammer to a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect highway funding from being swiped by the Legislature for other uses.
The Kansas City Republican said he agreed it was irresponsible of the Legislature not to spend tax dollars as they were intended, but he took issue with having his hands tied in the event of unforeseen economic hardships.
About 63% of the state’s revenue is directed toward public education, as dictated by the Kansas Supreme Court’s enforcement of a constitutional mandate to adequately fund schools. Another 23%, Braun said, is tied up in caseloads with federal funding attached.
As a result, Braun said, the Legislature only has spending discretion for about 15% of the state’s cash. He questioned Michael White, executive director of the Kansas Contractors Association, about what would happen “if a tornado takes out half of Kansas.”
“Are you serious about specifically calling out a constitutional amendment for this, and if so, why would every other person who’s part of the 15% discretionary income, why should they not come in here and ask for the same thing?” Braun said.
White said the difference is the cash in question is generated by a .4-cent sales tax specifically designated for highway projects administered by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony from White and other invested groups who support the proposed constitutional amendment. The Legislature since 1988 has dipped into highway funding to cover other expenses.
Withdrawals from the so-called Bank of KDOT escalated under former Gov. Sam Brownback, with more than $2 billion swept away since 2011. Budgets proposed by Gov. Laura Kelly have lessened the annual sweeps, which she plans to eliminate entirely by the end of her first term.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, introduced the proposed constitutional amendment to require money raised for transportation projects by the state sales tax to be used on transportation projects.
“This is something I wanted to do before I was in the Legislature,” Hilderbrand said. “When I was a citizen of Kansas, it always bothered me to read in the paper and see where the state was sweeping funds out of the Bank of KDOT."
KDOT has developed a new long-term transportation plan, called Forward, that would place an emphasis on highway preservation. New projects would be selected on an ongoing basis, as funds are available, to keep communities engaged.
The previous plan, T-Works, orphaned two dozen scheduled projects for lack of funding.
“Infrastructure investments are good for Kansas,” White said. “The economic growth generated by these investments increase activity for Kansas business, increase wages and spur economic activity in rural communities, and employ thousands of Kansans. When infrastructure investments are not made, the reverse is true.”
Braun said he was uncomfortable replacing legislation with constitutional mandates.
“My original constitution for the state of Kansas did not have taxation of horses to pay for roads, because the goal of the constitution is to create a framework,” Braun said.
Jay Hall, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Counties, said the state’s roads, bridges, rails, airports and other transportation needs are jeopardized by the Legislature’s willingness to raid highway funding.
"We've named it the Bank of KDOT because everyone knows if we run a little short, we can just go to the Bank of KDOT,“ Hall said. ”That is why we should have a very serious conversation about what should be done about those funds.“
If the constitutional amendment “caused us to stop funding community hospitals,” Braun asked, “you would proudly stand up and say, ’I’m really glad we did that constitutional amendment, that we took the direction away from the Legislature?”
Hall said he would stand by the constitutional amendment, “because when we earmark funds, we need to be consistent.”
As a lobbyist, Braun asked, “can you tell me what your next constitutional amendment will be?"
"I do not have a constitutional amendment I would be bringing this session,“ Hall said.
Braun said he has great trust in Gov. Laura Kelly and KDOT secretary Julie Lorenz as the state prepares to launch the next long-term transportation plan.
“This is a leadership issue,” Braun said. “Currently, we have leadership that is prioritizing this.”