Democrat sees Kansas tapping road funds; Brownback won’t say

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, left, and Gov. Sam Brownback, right.

? While Republican Gov. Sam Brownback avoided the issue Friday, a Democratic legislator said Kansas is likely to divert millions of additional dollars from highway projects to cover short-term funding gaps in other parts of the budget.

Kansas is facing at least a small projected shortfall in its current budget and could face further belt-tightening for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Brownback and other governors from both parties have regularly siphoned funds away from transportation projects in the past in complying with the state constitution’s requirement for a balanced budget.

State Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said Kansas isn’t likely to have any other choice in covering short-term funding gaps in other parts of the budget. She predicted that Brownback will seek to divert sales tax revenues now set aside for road projects, estimated to be $551 million in the next fiscal year.

Brownback’s aides have sought to counter criticism of his record on highway funding by promoting a Libertarian think tank’s recent study rating Kansas’ highway system as the nation’s third best, based on 2013 data. During a news conference, he wouldn’t discuss budget proposals under consideration and added, “It’d be great to tell the people of Kansas we have great roads.”

Pressed again about highway funding, Brownback said, “Maybe if you would give a decent article on it, maybe could have further discussions on it.”

The state has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging as an economic stimulus. The budget fixes since have included diverting almost $1.3 billion in highway funds to other uses.

Kelly said that even if legislators raised taxes next year, the new revenues wouldn’t flow to the state for months. While the state constitution requires motor fuels taxes and vehicle registration fees to be used for roads, sales tax revenues can be diverted, and Kelly said they represent the only real source of funds to plug big budget gaps quickly.

“I think they’re just going to grab that, and they’re going to have to,” Kelly said.

Brownback’s allies are facing a potential backlash in the November election. Fourteen GOP conservative legislators lost their seats in the August primary.

In touting the state’s roads, the governor and his aides are addressing a potential issue in legislative races, whether the diversion of transportation funds has hurt the state’s highway system. Brownback staffers repeatedly tweeted about a study released last week by the Reason Foundation, whose trustees include billionaire businessman and conservative political donor David Koch.

The foundation said that based on 2013 data, Kansas had the third best highway system, considering its cost-effectiveness along with the quality of its roads and bridges. The foundation has rated Kansas in the top 10 for more than a decade.

The last report by the foundation, issued in 2014, ranked Kansas fifth. But the state saw a bigger jump in its rating in 2006, when it went from 10th best to third best, based on 2004 data — during the administration of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.