Pencil it out?

Syndicated to Kansas newspapers Jan. 30, 2017

Martin HawverYes, we’ve read them. The dozens of stories about some little agency we’ve never heard of, and aren’t exactly sure just what it does or for whom, which is going to lose money under Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposed budget for the next two years.
While every agency does something that makes life better or safer or at least regulates manicurists, if you go to the big budget numbers on state activity that we notice every day, well, you generally wind up at the Kansas Department of Transportation. That’s KDOT, or maybe the “Bank of KDOT” if you are withdrawing state sales tax revenues dedicated to it and spending that money on other stuff.
Last week, we got the real look at the governor’s plan to make a withdrawal from the Bank of KDOT. Starting July 1, the governor plans to take back $525.3 million in sales tax from KDOT, and the year after $533 million.
Every now and again, and it’s not all that frequently, state officials actually put out hard numbers that we all understand when they explain the budget cut effects.
KDOT Secretary Richard Carlson did that last week. It wasn’t pretty.
Carlson released a list of $273 million, or 96 miles, of modernization projects to rebuild existing roadways, widen shoulders, flatten hills and straighten curves; $251 million or 43.7 miles of expansion projects, which add capacity to roads by adding lanes or new interchanges; and $311 million in road preservation projects—generally overlays and such—on 247 miles of state road that will be not bid out for construction in the next two fiscal years.
Now, that’s understandable. Not much money—KDOT still gets “unsweepable” motor fuel tax money, and federal money for highway work but the real key for much of the work is the 1.05% share of the state’s 6.5% sales tax that KDOT won’t get.
Maybe it was the list…projects in nearly every county which were part of the state’s highway plan that just aren’t going to be bid out to contractors who will probably hire Kansans, or at least maintain employment of workers, to build those projects.
Things also aren’t likely to change much until the state raises enough revenue or redesigns state government so it requires less money to meet the demands of Kansans, or…goes another way.
That “other way” is to raise the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel that we use to power our cars and trucks that wear out our streets and highways.
The Kansas Contractors Association—the folks who bid on those contracts to build roads—aren’t looking to a turnaround on keeping the sales tax that was dedicated to them, and are talking an increase in motor fuel taxes.
The initial plan, up 11 cents a gallon, would raise $200 million or more a year from us folks who wear out the highways to keep the highways safe and straight and such.
Taking the gas tax from 24 cents to 35 cents a gallon would mean you pay, what, maybe $2 a tankful if you waited until the warning light was blinking before filling up?
Oh, and that gasoline tax can’t be swept from KDOT for other purposes, so it might be the one tax you pay that you know what it’s going to be spent for. If that’s a comfort, well, OK, there you go.
What’s the future? Nobody can tell yet, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Kansas Legislature is going to come up with enough money or budget-cutting to quit filching money from KDOT.
So, you might just want to pencil it out…a higher gasoline tax and no pop for the kids at the gas station, or declining road safety—and bumps that’ll have the kids spilling that pop on the back seat.

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