Lawmakers should stop using KDOT funds as piggy bank

opinions

November 26, 2011 - 12:00 AM

With the 2012 Session of the Kansas Legislature little more than a month away, it’s time for the state’s budget writers to take a pledge: “We will not take a dime away from the Kansas Department of Transportation and spend it on the Highway Patrol, Medicaid, subsidized airline tickets in Wichita or popsicles for pages.”
Well, OK, I made up the popsicles. The other transfers actually have been happening.
In a page one article Sunday, the Topeka Capital-Journal reviewed the budgets since 2000 and reported that the lawmakers, aided and abetted by the governors, have withdrawn $1.4 billion earmarked for KDOT and spent it for other purposes.
For the current fiscal year, which began July 1, $238 million was taken from KDOT – an increase of nearly $50 million from last year.
“This is over,” KDOT secretary Deb Miller said. “It is just not possible to take more from this program and then go back and credibly say to the public that we’re still going to do what was promised. If the KDOT budget continues to be cut, projects will have to be eliminated. Period.”
As she explained to the Journal reporter, KDOT has been able to complete the projects in its 2000-2010 program because it had large reserves, was able to refinance its bonds when interest rates fell and was the recipient of substantial revenues from the federal stimulus program.
This year, Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature took $205 million from revenues earmarked for KDOT to avoid cuts in the state Medicaid program and sent another $33 million to the Highway Patrol.

WHY ARE DOLLARS raised for highways through taxes on gasoline and diesel snitched and spent for Medicaid? Mostly because the highway fuels taxes were already in place and neither the governor nor the lawmakers were willing to raise taxes to meet the cost of providing health care to the state’s poor. That’s called robbing Peter to pay Paul.
It’s also called creating greater burdens for tomorrow’s highway budgets because the decision was made to cut back on current construction and maintenance. It is easy to see how cutting back on maintenance guarantees higher future costs. An overlay this year pushes forward the date when much more expensive rebuilding becomes necessary. Substantial maintenance, such as adding shoulders to make secondary roads safer, can also be done now at a reasonable cost.
The savings to be realized from following the 10-year plan that was approved in 2010 rather than trimming it back to allow more transfers depends on some guesswork.
Because of the recession, highways and bridges can be built for less than will be the case when the economy recovers and costs rise. How much can be saved depends on how much costs rise, which can only be estimated. It does seem prudent, however, to do as much of this job-creating work now as can be afforded. This is the kind of spending that spurs economic recovery.
And that brings us back to the nut of the matter. Kansas should raise enough money through taxes as it takes to funds its core purposes, as Gov. Brownback has said. Medicaid – providing basic health care to the state’s indigent families – is a core purpose. The Highway Patrol is a core purpose. And charging KDOT for the Highway Patrol is like paying for the District Court from the Sheriff’s budget because they both work in the same building on law enforcement.
If the state’s income isn’t high enough to meet what the state should do for and with the people of Kansas, then taxes should be raised.
Period.

– Emerson Lynn, jr.

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