Politics & Government

Should Kansas raise the gas tax to pay for highways? Some officials are discussing it

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Kansas drivers may pay more at the pump — or pay a fee if they own an electric car — to help fund future highway improvements, under ideas proposed by state lawmakers and officials.

One senator says the current gas tax of 24 cents a gallon should increase to 29 cents a gallon.

Discussion of a higher gas tax and fees comes as Kansas begins crafting a new long-term transportation plan that will guide highway projects for years to come.

A state task force finalized recommendations on Thursday for a program that will eventually replace T-WORKS, the 10-year, $8 billion transportation plan that kicked off in 2010.

The recommendations call for funding through sales taxes, the gas tax and a fee on electric vehicles, among other sources. The recommendations don’t suggest how high the gas tax should go.

The Legislature and the Kansas Department of Transportation will use the recommendations as they develop a new program in the coming year.

Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, voiced support for raising the gas tax by 5 cents. He said if Kansas is going to have a highway plan, it needs a steady stream of funding.

“A gas tax means that people who are using the roads pay for them, and I think user fees are the fairest form of taxation we have,” Hawk said.

Kansas now charges 24.03 cents per gallon on gasoline (excluding federal gas taxes). Every 5 cents of tax produces about $90 million a year.

Kansas has one of the lower gas tax rates in the country. The highest-taxed state is Pennsylvania, at 58.7 cents a gallon, while the lowest is Alaska at 14.65 cents a gallon, according to rankings from the Tax Foundation.

Other task force members cast doubt on whether higher taxes would find support in the Legislature.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, predicted lawmakers won’t have the appetite for significant revenue increases, either by imposing a large fee or raising the gas tax.

“I don’t think it gets through the Legislature,” Claeys said.

Charging the owners of electric vehicles an annual fee also emerged as possible source of revenue.

Supporters say a fee would ensure electric vehicle owners pay their fair share to help maintain the state’s highways since they don’t pay taxes on gasoline purchases. But opponents fear a fee would eliminate an incentive for drivers to purchase the more environmentally friendly vehicles.

A fee of $200 per vehicle could generate $40 million a year by 2030. But it would only bring in about $250,000 a year immediately, according to Julie Lorenz, a consultant with Burns & McDonnell who mediated the task force meeting Thursday.

That’s because the number of electric vehicles are expected to grow over time.

“I would highly recommend it’s something that you should start because it’s a source that will grow over time,” Lorenz told task force members.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who co-chaired the task force, said electric vehicle owners she has spoken to understand that they are not paying anything in gas tax.

“The four wheels are still on that pavement. So there needs to be some kind of a connection and a partnership there,” McGinn said.

The recommendations approved Thursday call for completing existing T-WORKS projects within about four years. Finishing those projects will cost upwards of $500 million.

Beyond that, the task force discussed scenarios that would provide approximately $500 million for new expansion projects in the future. The task force didn’t recommend specific projects.

Over the past several years, Kansas took more than $2 billion originally intended for highway funding and spent it elsewhere. Much of that came as then-Gov. Sam Brownback sought to balance the budget amid shortfalls in tax revenue.

The task force on Thursday grappled with how to ensure that in the future highway funding is actually spent on highways. The panel explored so-called lockbox legislation that would prohibit transportation funding from being spent elsewhere.

Lawmakers were split on whether a lockbox would be valuable. Some doubted that it would work or feared that the Legislature might need the money during a recession.

“If we were to lock this money into a lockbox and we get ourselves into a recession … the place we would have to go is K-12 education, which would only precipitate another court lawsuit and we just can’t put ourselves into that situation,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House’s budget committee.

But Rep. Shannon Francis, a Liberal Republican, said some type of lockbox would be beneficial.

“I don’t think there’s a way we can ensure consistent funding for transportation” without a lockbox, he said.

The task force’s report will be finalized in the coming days. It’s due to the Legislature by the end of January.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.