Kansas must fix its highway funding shortfall, Sen. Rick Billinger said Wednesday morning at the Ellis County Fairgrounds at an annual meeting of county officials from northwest Kansas.
Billinger cited the steady and ongoing transfer of money from the Kansas Department of Transportation over the past decade into the state’s general fund, which Gov. Laura Kelly has vowed to stop.
“That’s still happening today,” Billinger told the 125 officials gathered for the meeting in the Unrein Building at the fairgrounds, 1343 Fairground Road. “Today we’re still robbing over $200 million from KDOT.”
The state is trying to create a new 10-year plan to improve the highways, said Billinger, a Republican who represents 14 counties in District 40 in northwest Kansas, which includes Ellis and Trego counties.
“We gotta figure this out if we’re going to take care of our roads,” Billinger said. “This didn’t just happen the last administration. This has been going on for a lot of years, and it continues.”
A number of roads in the region are not safe, he said, mentioning specifically K-23 highway from Interstate 70 to Hoxie.
“That stretch in there is very, very, very dangerous,” Billinger said. “It just needs shoulders so someone can get over when there’s a wide load.”
He characterized the transition from the previous Republican Brownback administration to the current Democratic Kelly administration.
“We kind of jumped off the train from large tax cuts, back on the train of spending,” Billinger said. “We can’t sustain it.”
He pointed to the state’s long-running battle over funding for education and the court-ordered requirement to increase school funding across the state.
“We promised schools more than we know we have,” Billinger said. “We know we don’t have enough money to take care of the obligation.”
The one-day meeting on Wednesday is the annual fall gathering of the Northwest Kansas County Commissioners and Highway Officials Association, attended by officials from 18 counties.
Each year the meeting rotates by alphabetical order to a different county, said Ellis County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst, who on Wednesday was wrapping up his final day as president of the regional organization.
Haselhorst, in the run-up to the meeting, said it was his goal to get more vendors and attendees than at past meetings. Among the 150 vendors represented at the meeting, the main sponsors were Foley Equipment and Murphy Tractor and Equipment Co., with road graders, backhoes and other big equipment in the fairground parking lot for county officials to see.
“We have a great facility to have it,” Haselhorst said.
Topics at the meeting included insurance, highway projects and risk management, as well as the state legislative update that Billinger was part of.
Attendees included county commissioners and public works supervisors from the counties, as well as additional county officials from Ellis County.
“We’re trying to be educated on what their safety concerns are,” said Undersheriff Scott Braun, who attended with Sheriff Ed Harbin.
Besides Billinger, Kansas House Reps. Barb Wasinger, Republican for the 111th District, and Ken Rahjes, Republican for the 110th, also updated the county officials.
Rahjes, Wasinger and Billinger had all stopped earlier in the morning at High Plains Mental Health Center, 208 E. 7th St.
At the fairgrounds, all three mentioned their concern about funding for mental health programs, with Billinger commenting on psychiatric hospital services for youths, which are currently provided by KVC Hospital, 205 E. 7th St.
“They’re wanting to close these beds here in Hays and ship them to Wichita,” Billinger said. “I can just imagine some child in Sharon Springs, Kansas, that’s got to come two hours to Hays, and ‘Oh by the way it’s closed here and you’ve got to go on to Wichita,’ another 180 miles. Some of these things just don’t make sense.”
With it being an election year in 2020 for everyone in the Kansas Senate and House, Rahjes said he doesn’t see a tax increase coming, and he doesn’t favor one either.
“I think we need to live within our means,” Rahjes said. “Transportation, early childhood and education, those are going to take up all the money in the world, if our world is the state of Kansas.”
County commissioners are well aware of the demands for mental health care, he indicated, noting the Legislature hasn’t come through, often transferring the burden to city and county law enforcement and courts.
“That’s something we have failed miserably, when it comes to try to fund,” Rahjes said.
Wasinger also mentioned mental health needs.
“There’s a serious, serious need for mental health, particularly in rural Kansas,” she said, citing the number of farmer suicides.
Not taking money from KDOT will put pressure elsewhere in the budget, Wasinger indicated.
“We need to stop stealing from KDOT, but as was said before, it means we’re going to have to cut other programs, and it’s not going to be pretty,” she said, adding, “I have to agree with Ken that I don’t think there will be a whole lot of slashing this part of the session, but by the next year, after the elections, I’m sure there will be a lot more. We just have to do it.”
Overall, Wasinger said, “We need to take care of our roads, take care of our kids, so that we can keep them out of the jails, so we can keep them out of the mental health facilities, and stop messing around with local government, leave them alone — you guys know better what to do.”
Rahjes spoke out favoring a friendly environment in Kansas toward business.
“We want to make sure we have a good business environment,” he said.
He cautioned that some groups in Topeka want to reduce the size of local government.
“What keeps coming up is the C word,” he said. “There are certain groups that say we have too many counties, we have too many townships, we have too many everything, too many precincts and so on.”
Wasinger mentioned, as well, what 2020 will bring.
“We’re going to have redistricting next year, and we’re going to lose more representation in western Kansas,” she said. “One of the problems is we’ve got to find the right buzz words to have the Johnson County, Sedgwick County and Shawnee people understand what we need to get done.”
KDOT, she said, is focusing on the safety of the roads and highways first, rather than building new roads, a fight that she said will be had with the urban counties.
“They also are working very hard, there are a lot of public private partnerships with cable companies and electric co-ops to help bring broadband a lot cheaper to everybody,” Wasinger said. “We’ve got to get the state covered with broadband, we have to. It will keep our communities alive, it will help people who want to move back, get away from urban areas, and want to live in our communities, where people are good and you don’t have to lock your door.”