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Kansas highway programs tempting targets

By JOHN HANNA

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Three successive multibillion-dollar transportation programs have given Kansas some of the best highways in the nation, but they've also created a ready source of rainy day funds whenever the state faces budget problems.

Borrowing funds meant for the Kansas Department of Transportation's highway, bridge and road maintenance projects has become so common some legislators have nicknamed the state's transportation programs "the Bank of KDOT." Both the efforts to siphon away funds and complaints about the "raids" are bipartisan habits stretching back nearly a quarter-century.

This year is no exception. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and many members of the GOP-dominated Legislature want to follow up on massive income tax cuts enacted last year and to position the state to eventually phase out personal income taxes. But they also have to stabilize the budget.

Brownback has proposed diverting $510 million in highway funds during the next two years, according to legislative researchers. The House wanted to increase that amount by $382 million through two years but backed off the idea amid heavy criticism and a warning from Brownback's own transportation secretary that already scheduled projects would be delayed.

Yet, despite the rebuke for the House's proposal, the Legislature appears likely to siphon at least several hundred million dollars of highway funds, because both chambers have endorsed most of the diversions Brownback has proposed.

"I think there's an impression among some legislators that there is more than enough money in transportation to adequately fund roads and roads improvements," said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

The push for big, multiyear commitments to highway projects began in 1987 with then-Republican Gov. Mike Hayden, and it took him almost two years to overcome legislators' skepticism. For that first program, the state increased its sales tax, boosted motor fuels taxes, hiked vehicle registration fees and authorized a then-gargantuan-sounding $890 million in bonds.

Republican Gov. Bill Graves, the scion of a trucking-company family, followed suit with a bigger, 10-year program in 1999, and the last program was enacted with a big push from Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson.

In pushing the first program, Hayden lamented deficient bridges, narrow highway shoulders and unsafe stretches of road. A recent report from the Libertarian-leaning, Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation said Kansas has no interstate miles in poor condition, and in 2010, it ranked the state third in the nation for the quality of its highways. That same year, Reader's Digest magazine ranked Kansas first.

Legislators in both parties also believe keeping the current program on track preserves thousands of jobs.

"We have decades of transportation programs that have created jobs and spurred economic development all across this state," Rep. Julie Menghini, a Pittsburg Democrat, said during a House debate last week.

And even as he proposes his own diversions of highway funds, Brownback is promising what he proposes won't delay projects, and his spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, has described transportation as a "core" function of state government. Brownback's administration has been careful this year to tie most of the diversions to transportation-related items currently financed with general tax revenues, such as $246 million for public schools' transportation programs.

Brownback said during a brief interview with the Associated Press he would have liked to have avoided diverting money from the transportation program but he had to deal with "the big trough" in the budget caused by last year's income tax cuts.

"We said, 'Well, we need to fill this because we're trying to protect core functions,' and we were still able to do it and do the projects that had been announced and put forward," Brownback said.

"People put the money there in the roads; they're going to build the roads, and then they look at ways they can, at times of being cash-tight, use it for an interim period for other things."

After Hayden's program was enacted, supporters battled regular attempts to recapture some of the money. A year after Graves pushed successfully for his program, he was seeking to divert funds, and in 2002, his administration put nine projects on the chopping block until lawmakers raised motor fuels taxes. More siphoning occurred during the next administration of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, and lawmakers brokered a deal with her to cancel a sales tax cut set for 2006 to keep the program on track.

The back and forth has helped create a cadre of conservative, anti-tax, small-government skeptics. Some of them wonder whether the estimates of the revenues needed to sustain programs are overstated if projects remain intact despite raids. Some wonder whether the spending has gotten enough scrutiny.

"Build government from the ground up with what you need -- not always what we want, but what we need," said Jeff Glendening, director of the chapter of Americans for Prosperity. "And KDOT is probably the first department that needs to get looked at."

In the meantime, the Bank of KDOT is open for loans and withdrawals, and it's likely to stay that way as long as governors and legislators keep enacting big transportation programs.