The House and Senate considered last-minute negotiations on a new 10-year transportation plan guaranteeing infrastructure money to every county in Kansas and a mandate to complete unfulfilled promises of the T-Works program launched a decade ago.
House and Senate members Tuesday were pressing to complete legislative work before adjourning early due to spread of COVID-19 in Kansas.
The Senate approved the $9.9 billion FORWARD plan for construction, improvement, reconstruction and maintenance of the state’s transportation system based on recommendations by Gov. Laura Kelly. Also on Monday, the House came up with a modified $9.9 billion package christened in honor of Dwight Eisenhower and designed to direct more resources to rural areas.
Both bills required the Kansas Department of Transportation to select projects every two years to make the program responsive to evolving demands. In addition, the bills mandated 16.1% of revenue from the state’s 6.5% sales tax to be deposited in the state highway fund. They dictated at least $8 million be spent in every county.
One of the most significant differences was the Senate left decisions about the $2.3 billion appropriation for modernization and expansion projects to KDOT. The House wants to invest half that money in six service districts established by KDOT and the remainder left to the secretary.
The House version compelled KDOT to award contracts for unfinished T-Works projects by July 2022, while the Senate bill set the deadline at July 2023. T-Works wasn’t completed because state income tax cuts in 2012 combined with a weak Kansas economy cratered state revenue and inspired raids on the “Bank of KDOT” that surpassed $3 billion in the past decade.
Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, said two of three T-Works projects in his area of southwest Kansas weren’t built. He said the House version provided rural lawmakers greater assurance projects in their districts would be completed.
“There’s a lot of things I like in this bill,” he said. “Highways are one of the most important things for my community and southwest Kansas highways are the lifeblood of our economy.”
Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, delivered a scorching lecture to House colleagues about what he viewed as the House bill’s naive premise that legislators would do whatever was necessary to pay for the expensive highway program.
“We’re on the verge of a recession,” Helgerson said. “We’re not being honest with the taxpayers of Kansas. While I support the expansion and repair of our highways this bill is financially flawed. It guarantees the reopening of the Bank of KDOT or a tax increase.”
In the Senate, Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand of Galena proposed an amendment to forbid the Legislature from stripping out highway funding for other purposes. His tax transparency amendment was rejected 15-24.
“We don’t want to ever handcuff the legislative body. We have to balance the budget,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The House bill would prevent cash-strapped lawmakers from raiding the highway fund in the future. The limitation would be enforced by linking a portion of sales tax money for transportation to debt service on as much as $1.2 billion in bonds.
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said the goal of shielding sales tax money in the highway fund from sweeps was admirable. She said the House bill wouldn’t provide guaranteed funding for bonding and increase the overall cost of that borrowing.
On Monday, the Senate approved a bill on a 37-2 vote, while a rival plan cleared the House, 103-16. During House debate, a proposal by Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, to eliminate the state’s sales tax on groceries was derailed on procedural grounds.