TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature's task force Thursday recommended completion of more than 20 highway projects suspended when the cash-strapped state government drained away highway funding to balance the budget and to place a high priority on investments preventing deterioration of existing infrastructure.
The panel of state and local government officials and industry representatives struggled to identify precise sources of funding to cover $535 million needed to finish 21 projects remaining from the T-Works program started in 2010. It was the same with pinpointing financing as much as $500 million annually for road preservation projects managed by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
In the second half of the 10-year program, the task force said KDOT must continue planning and executing large expansion projects that address profound safety problems and emerging economic development opportunities.
Task force members raised the potential of authorizing toll roads to pay for new construction and incentivizing local units of government to contribute to transportation projects. Other revenue ideas included raising the state's 24-cent per gallon tax on gasoline, trimming state sales tax exemptions and hiking vehicle registration fees.
The report, which is still in draft form, will be presented to the 2019 Legislature and Gov.-elect Laura Kelly, who could accept or reject the task force's work.
"We need to write a new book. We need the vision out there," said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chairwoman of the task force. "We're talking reality. We don't have the money to fund what everybody asked for."
The challenge of operating KDOT was put to the test when Gov. Sam Brownback redirected tax dollars earmarked for T-Works into the general budget after the state suffered deep revenue shortfalls. In large measure, deficits were driven by aggressive reductions in state income taxes and elimination of the income tax on more than 300,000 business owners. The income tax cuts signed into law by Brownback in 2012 were repealed in 2017 by the Legislature.
In all, Brownback and state lawmakers stripped more than $2 billion from KDOT since 2011 to keep state government in the black.
A majority of the task force supported passing a state law placing state transportation dollars in a lock box beyond reach of the House, Senate and governor.
"We have to have consistent funding," said Rep. Shannon Francis, a Liberal Republican.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, said that kind of regimented budgeting mechanism could prove problematic if the state's economy worsened and highway money was again needed elsewhere. He said it would be a "horrible precedent" and Kansans ought to rely on the 125 representatives, 40 senators and the governor to make solid decisions.
Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, proposed a 5-cent increase in the state's per-gallon tax on gasoline. The 24-cent tax hasn't been increased since 2003.
The task force also recommended lawmakers guarantee each county a minimum amount of new highway program dollars, reinstatement of a county bridge initiative and about $20 million in new investment on rail, aviation, biking and other transit projects. Some members of the task force supported removal of a property tax lid imposed by the state on local units of government to potentially free up cash for transportation improvements.