Kansas lawmakers on Thursday bucked Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to use highway cash to fill a massive budget hole.
A key House budget committee scaled back Brownback’s plan to divert nearly $500 million from highways over two years into other programs in the budget, including one that subsidizes air fares in Wichita.
The panel controlling the Kansas Department of Transportation’s purse strings agreed to allow only about $300 million to be transferred out of the agency. The balance — about $180 million — would go toward roads.
It’s uncertain whether the panel’s recommendation will stand up because it must be approved by the House Appropriations Committee. But lawmakers say they wanted to underscore how the governor is keeping the budget afloat as state revenues fall.
“The point is to have the conversation about robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican.
Lawmakers on the panel were alarmed by the highway department’s plan to raise its debt limit to complete highway projects because so much money had been diverted out of the agency in recent years.
“Using the KDOT credit card makes no sense to me,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican.
Since 2011, about $1.3 billion has been drawn from the highway fund to pay for other expenses, including mental health grants, debt on the statehouse renovations and busing students. Under Brownback’s budget plan, that amount would grow to $2.1 billion by fiscal year 2017.
State highway officials already announced plans to delay $300 million in unspecified road maintenance projects because of transfers proposed by the governor.
The plan approved by the committee Thursday stops $7 million in transfers from highways to a program subsidizing airlines providing low-fare service to Wichita and other airports.
A lobbyist for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce said the state would set a bad precedent if it reneged on a promise to Southwest Airlines to fund the subsidy.
“We think it’s important that we keep our word,” Jason Watkins said. “We had leaders from this state go and recruit a major company to Kansas.”
The Star’s Bryan Lowry also contributed to this report.
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