TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly invited the Legislature to get on board a four-year plan to slowly close the sardonically named "Bank of KDOT."
She would begin by halting transfer of $100 million in sales tax revenue earmarked for the Kansas Department of Transportation that has been flowing to other areas of the state budget, including $45 million subsidizing the cost of busing school children. A proposal outlined by the Democratic governor would kick the Legislature out of KDOT's vault by 2023.
Gradual repatriation of cash drawn from the Department of Transportation would allow the agency to resume work on 21 highway projects frozen during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback in response to deep income tax revenue shortfalls. Years of cash transfers from KDOT, which now total about $2.9 billion, earned the agency the Bank of KDOT title.
"Assuming revenue stays stable, the governor's goal is to eliminate all transfers from the state highway fund to the state general fund," said Larry Campbell, the state budget director.
Julie Lorenz, the interim KDOT secretary hired by Kelly, said Friday in an interview that she was thrilled with the governor's recommendation to limit transfers by $100 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The state's pent-up highway preservation and expansion needs, coupled with emergence of new transportation investment demands since the $8 billion T-Works program was launched in 2010, require greater investment by the state, she said.
"Make no mistake, we have a lot of ground to make up. We need more money. Certainly, brighter days are ahead. This doesn't solve all our problems," Lorenz said.
Stalled projects at KDOT that might move off the drawing board include a four-lane expansion of US-54 highway east of Liberal and overhaul of US-159 highway in Anderson County, specifically a section from Welda to Garnett with an inappropriate alignment and no shoulders.
"I’m excited to help develop new opportunities to expand our transportation investments across the state while also working to maintain the existing system. Transportation is a part of everyone’s lives and the work KDOT does is critical to our state," Lorenz said.
In the state budget year ending in June, a total of $465 million is scheduled to be withdrawn from KDOT to cover operations of state government unrelated to highway or bridge upgrades. The amount is generally separated into "extraordinary" transfers of $365 million, which includes money for busing children, and $105 million in "ordinary" transfers, which supports Kansas Highway Patrol and other priorities.
Kelly's objective is to whittle down extraordinary demand on KDOT resources by $100 million in the next fiscal year.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, the Bunker Hill Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was disappointed Kelly's budget shared Thursday to the Legislature didn't outline a vision for a new long-term transportation plan that would follow T-Works.
He said a state transportation task force, which involved Lorenz as a consultant, concluded Kansas should focus on completion of T-Works, address highway preservation projects and deal with evolving transportation goals linked to safety and economic development.
"One of the things we're going to be challenged during this legislative session is drafting a 10-year plan," Waymaster said.
Campbell, the state's budget director, said Kelly was committed to working with legislators, KDOT officials and the public to develop a new generation highway program for Kansas.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, has introduced a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would prohibit transfers from KDOT. It would need two-thirds majority support by the House and Senate to be placed on statewide ballots in 2020.