Lawmakers reticent about locking up highway money

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The idea looks good on paper.

Pass a constitutional amendment locking up billions of dollars in highway money that’s been used to balance the budget.

In practice, it may be a different matter.

Lawmakers on Tuesday showed some reluctance to passing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit transportation funding from being diverted to general state spending.

“It sounds good, but I don’t know if that’s the way to protect the funding or not,” said Republican Sen. John Skubal.

“If you put this in the constitution and we have another downturn in the economy, we’re going to struggle for money.”

Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand is proposing to amend the constitution to stop the transfers, which have totaled more than $2 billion over the last decade.

“This is something that I wanted to do before I was even in the Legislature,” Hilderbrand told the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I’ve always thought for transparency reasons that if you’re going to collect a tax and use it for something, then you should collect that tax and use it for what you say you will it use it for.”

Transportation professionals, including contractors and engineers, have been calling on the Legislature to prevent sales tax dollars for transportation from being diverted elsewhere in the budget.

A decade ago, the Legislature approved a roughly $8 billion, 10-year transportation plan that ended up coming in at about $6 billion after  money was redirected elsewhere in the budget.

Gov. Laura Kelly has promised to end the transfers by the end of fiscal year 2023 as one way of funding the new 10-year transportation plan that lawmakers are now considering.

Republican Sen. Kevin Braun asked Deputy Transportation Secretary Lindsey Douglas whether the governor’s plan for ending the transfers would work separate from a constitutional amendment.

“It’s really hard to stand and answer that question the day after what happened in our financial markets,” Douglas said, alluding to the 2,000-point drop in the stock market on Monday.

“We’ve always said that the fiscal ’23 goal is if revenues and expenditures can stay together,” Douglas said.

“We all know if a recession hits and we don’t have the money flowing into the general fund or the highway fund at the level that we have projected, there are lots of things at risk,” she said.

Nevertheless, lawmakers expressed concern about whether it was prudent to use a constitutional amendment that would effectively give them less discretion over state spending.

“I cringe a little bit when people start throwing out constitutional amendments,” said Republican Sen. Randall Hardy.

“It seems like we’re trying to use that as an excuse to deal with matters head on,” Hardy said.

Hardy asked amendment supporters whether the money could be protected by just changing state law.

“The Legislature has the ability to change a statute at any time,” said Michael White, executive director of the Kansas Contractors Association.

White said a constitutional amendment would be the best way to protect the transportation money but said the proposed amendment would only safeguard money already in the fund.

Braun asked what would stop other groups from asking for similar amendments that would leave legislators with little discretion for how to spend money in other needed areas.

“I think what’s happened is egregious,” Braun said of the transfers.

“I really question whether we go down a road where instead of having legislation…that everything is in the constitution,” he said.

But Braun pressed supporters about how the proposed amendment could tie legislators’ hands to spend on other state needs.

“If this were in place and it caused us to stop funding community hospitals, you would proudly stand up and say, ‘I’m really glad we did that constitutional amendment,” Braun asked one supporter.

Hilderbrand said legislators over the years have shown a lack of discipline by dipping into transportation to balance the budget.

He questioned whether it’s right for a tax designated for transportation to be used for something else.

Democratic Sen. Tom Hawk said he would rather a build a protection for the transportation money into state law instead of the constitution.

He said the current distress in the economy brought about by the corona virus affects how he looks at the constitutional amendment.

“What if we needed more money for public health, as an example” Hawk asked. “Would you put that over highways?”

Sen. Mike Petersen, chair of the transportation committee, said he could foresee working the bill.

“It’s pretty late in the (session) to get it through,” Petersen said, “but we’re going to try.”