Highway fund raids affecting jobs

Kansas lost more construction jobs during the past year than any other state.
Kansas lost more construction jobs during the past year than any other state.

Not only was Kansas’ job growth rate in July the worst in the nation, it lost more construction jobs during the past year than any other state.

The decline is due in part to the state’s struggling economy. But it’s also a consequence of Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature raiding the state transportation fund to cover the state’s budget shortfalls.

From July 2015 to July 2016, the total number of construction workers in Kansas declined by 4,400, or 7.3 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released this month by the Associated General Contractors of America. That was the most job losses of any state.

Nationwide, 39 states added construction jobs during the past 12 months. What’s more, several states in the region were among the leaders in job growth.

Iowa had the highest growth rate of construction jobs, at 16.5 percent. Colorado ranked No. 4 at 10.9 percent, and Oklahoma was No. 8 at 7.7 percent. Nebraska was No. 32 with 1 percent growth, and Missouri ranked No. 34 with 0.8 percent growth – not great but much better than Kansas.

Construction jobs aren’t limited to roads and bridges, and declines in the oil and gas and agriculture sectors likely contributed to the job losses. But Bob Totten, executive vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association, said that raids on the state’s transportation fund are having a big impact.

Over the past six years, Brownback and the Legislature have taken $2.7 billion in transportation funding to help pay other state bills, Totten said. The loss of this funding has meant fewer projects and fewer jobs.

“People aren’t working,” Totten said.

Several Kansas construction companies are now doing much of their work in neighboring states. It got so bad that Sherwood Construction, which was founded in Wichita in 1934, moved its headquarters to Tulsa.

For the past several years, lawmakers have vowed to stop raiding the transportation fund. But then there is another budget shortfall, and they do it again.

They and Brownback have treated the fund as if it were a magic piggy bank. No matter how much money they pulled out, they claimed there was no impact on the transportation plan.

But there are negative consequences for raiding these funds, both for road safety and jobs.