"Creative" was one of the adjectives used by the chief executive officer of the Kansas Board of Regents to describe the governor's plan to address a backlog of maintenance needs at the state's universities.
Reggie Robinson, the regents CEO, also hailed the governor's plan to use increased Kansas Turnpike tolls to cover maintenance costs as "serious" and "comprehensive." In reality, the regents and state university officials are less concerned with where the money comes from than they are that the overall funding package comes close to covering the pared-down list of $663 million in needed repairs.
The plan presented by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday would provide $575 million over the next seven years to catch up on maintenance. Included in the proposal is $300 million that would come from a surcharge on turnpike tolls of up to 5 percent a year. Another $75 million in bonds would come from a previous maintenance initiative and $200 million would come in the form of loans from the state's Pooled Money Investment Board.
State legislators responded positively to parts of the governor's plan but were wary of the increased turnpike tolls, which the Legislature would be required to approve. Although the governor pointed out that Kansas Turnpike tolls are among the lowest in the nation and increased toll revenue is "an asset that we can use more aggressively," some legislators were quick to question the wisdom of diverting turnpike revenue to non-highway uses.
While it's true that turnpike tolls traditionally have been used to fund highway projects, the governor's plan deserves review before legislators reject it out of hand. The plan wouldn't require any taxes to be raised and would reap revenue from out-of-state motorists, as well as Kansans.
Close attention, however, would have to be given to revenue projections from the governor's proposal. As they predict how much revenue the increased tolls would raise, state officials will have to consider the possibility that higher tolls might prompt some drivers to choose other routes.
The Board of Regents has tried to make its maintenance request more palatable for legislators by paring its wish list to the most "mission critical" buildings and by promising that universities will come up with their own plans to fund maintenance and operating costs for future privately funded building projects.
But, even with those revisions, $663 million in maintenance needs remain. Addressing such a large backlog without raising taxes will demand some out-of-the-box thinking. The governor's plan deserves points for creativity along with careful consideration by state legislators.