Topeka A pattern of using state transportation funds for other budget priorities could jeopardize Kansas' ability to meet its obligations under a new 10-year highway improvement plan, according to the outgoing transportation secretary.
Kansas lawmakers have withdrawn $1.4 billion earmarked for transportation improvements since 2000, and used the money for such things as operations for the Kansas Highway Patrol, subsidized airline tickets in Wichita and state Medicaid programs, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
For the current fiscal year, the state has diverted $238 million in transportation funds — a nearly $50 million increase from the previous fiscal year.
"This is over," transportation department 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 we're still going to do what was promised."
Miller, who is leaving the post in December after working for three governors, said the department was able to improve transportation infrastructure in the past decade despite raids on its funding because it had large reserves and refinanced bond debt for the work. The Kansas Department of Transportation also made extensive use of federal stimulus dollars for state highways, she said.
In the 2010 fiscal year, the department was required by the Legislature and then-Gov. Mark Parkinson to surrender $189 million. Losses from the state highway fund in fiscal year 2011, which ended in June, were $190 million.
Gov. Sam Brownback authorized removal of $205 million from KDOT in the current fiscal year to avoid cuts to the state Medicaid program. The state also forwarded $33 million from the agency to the Kansas Highway Patrol.
"I don't want to imply to anybody any of this is easy or that you can continue to do it year after year after year," Miller said. "We're having to manage very tightly."
Brownback said the state should seek alternatives to another large withdrawal of transportation funds in preparing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
And Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he would oppose removal of future funding from the transportation department in the fiscal year 2013 budget. The economic gain in construction jobs and improved road systems outweighs the benefits from using the funds to balance the state budget, he said.
"I'm against taking more," Morris said. "Highway plans are important in economic development and quality of life. We've got to have those projects go forward."
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the current 10-year highway program, if left unaltered, would create an estimated 175,000 temporary or permanent jobs.
"There's no better economic development than repairing roads, bridges and highways," Hensley said. "There's no question we've raided the highway fund too many times. We need to stop doing that."
Miller said the use of KDOT funds for other priorities did not jeopardize the safety of motorists in Kansas.
But continued raiding of the transportation department's funds will have consequences, Miller said.
"If we continue to lose money," she said, "we're going to have to eliminate projects. Period."