Kansas state government's affinity for piling on public debt expanded by 40 percent during the past four years as lawmakers borrowed $1 billion to bolster an underfunded pension system and sold $400 million in bonds to pay for basic highway maintenance, state officials said.

The result of these transactions was Kansas per capita debt load of $1,554 in 2018, ranking the state 18th highest in the nation. Kansas' total exceeded the combined figure of all four neighboring states. The per-capita comparisons: Missouri, $532; Colorado, $484; Oklahoma, $303; and Nebraska, $20. 

"Overall, the state had used debt sparingly in prior decades and was previously considered a low-debt state. Now, we are a moderate debt state," said Jim MacMurray, a senior vice president at the Kansas Development Finance Authority.

Accumulation of debt by the state of Kansas hasn't gone unnoticed by Jake LaTurner, the state's treasurer and a former Republican senator from southeast Kansas. His office created a "user-friendly" interactive portal to help the public review the source and amount of debt carried by the state.

"I strongly encourage the governor, legislators and others to use these tools to help develop a plan that aggressively attacks this liability," said LaTurner, who has interest in running for U.S. Senate. "It is important that we do not turn a blind eye to this endless cycle of mortgaging our children’s future."

More than $2 billion in tax-supported debt has been incurred to support the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and for building projects at the University of Kansas Medical Center, National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan and the Kansas Capitol.

Kansas taxpayers are on the hook for $2 billion in bonds issued on behalf of the Kansas Department of Transportation, including more than $400 million used to pay for highway surface preservation work in the previous and current fiscal years.

"Important to do, but not something for which you would typically bond," Julie Lorenz, interim KDOT secretary, told members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "Speaking to that appropriateness of bonding, when you think about bonding for a bridge that might last 50 or 75 years, great, because multiple generations are going to use that bridge."

However, she said, borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to fill potholes was a questionable investment strategy.

The state turned to borrowing for short-term highway maintenance projects because more than $2 billion had been drained from KDOT's revenue stream since 2011 by the Legislature and Republican governors. During five consecutive fiscal years, annual "Bank of KDOT" raids to support the state's general operating budget ranged from $425 million in 2015 to $530 million in 2018.

Lorenz said the budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly would reduce the diversion of KDOT's resources to $370 million in the 2020 fiscal year and phase out the practice within four years.