Highway robbery

The state can’t keep siphoning money from the highway fund without consequence.
The state can’t keep siphoning money from the highway fund without consequence.

Given the state’s financial problems, it’s not surprising that Gov. Sam Brownback wants to transfer $96 million from the highway fund to help cover this year’s budget shortfall. It’s also all but certain that more highway funds will be raided next fiscal year.

But the state can’t keep siphoning money from the highway fund without consequence. It’s not a magic piggy bank.

The highway fund transfer is part of $280 million in allotment cuts that Brownback announced Tuesday. Those cuts also included a $7.8 million reduction to the Kansas Department of Transportation’s operating budget.

Diverting money from the highway fund is not new. Former Govs. Bill Graves, Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson did it, and Brownback has done it each year he has been governor. In the past 14 years, withdrawals from the “Bank of KDOT,” as lawmakers cynically refer to it, have totaled more than $1 billion.

But the amount of the transfers has increased in recent years. Under Brownback, withdrawals from KDOT were $50 million annually for two years, then increased to $200 million last fiscal year. Before the allotment cuts, the state was already transferring $263 million from its highway fund to other uses this fiscal year.

Unlike in the past, when the transfers were in response to national economic downturns, the recent transfers are linked to the state’s income tax reductions. In other words, the state is using the highway fund to finance its tax cuts.

When former Transportation Secretary Deb Miller resigned in 2011, she warned that continuing to raid the highway fund would jeopardize transportation projects across the state.

“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,” she said.

But that’s what the current transportation secretary, Mike King, has been doing. He said last week that $1.2 billion in highway projects set to begin in 2015 and 2016, including an expansion of the interchange of I-235 and Kellogg in Wichita, will proceed as planned – though he didn’t promise anything beyond 2016.

Meanwhile, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, suggested that the state pull the highway plan “back to a point of preservation.” The Kansas Policy Institute, a free-market think tank linked to Koch Industries, proposed that the state divert more than $1 billion in funding from the highway plan over the next 4 1/2 years.

Kansas has good roads, thanks to its past investments. And given the bad choice of cutting back on the current highway plan or making deeper funding cuts to social services or possibly schools, most Kansans likely would opt for the former.

Still, Brownback and lawmakers need to stop treating the highway fund like it’s free money.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee