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Kansas republicans hope to save transportation projects

Republican legislators give their proposal for funding state's highway projects

By John Hanna
Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. – Republican legislative leaders are proposing to shore up the state's comprehensive transportation plan with bonds, sales tax revenue and federal funds.

The plan, which GOP leaders outlined Tuesday, is designed to prevent cancellation of highway projects promised to communities under the $13.5 billion, 10-year transportation plan started in 1999.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, has offered a plan that rests on issuing $465 million in bonds and dedicating $264 million in sales tax revenue to highway work.

The Republican approach requires just $150 million in bonds but sets aside $395 million in sales tax revenue for transportation projects before the program ends in 2009.

Republicans also count on an additional $300 million in federal highway funds over six years, while the Sebelius plan makes no assumptions about the outcome of current congressional debate over transportation funding.

"It makes no sense to do a fix and ignore the federal money," said Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson.

Sebelius, in a statement issued Tuesday, suggested the Republicans were overly optimistic about federal aid. But she pledged to work with them to secure federal money and said she was encouraged that they had offered a plan.

"While we've taken slightly different approaches, I'm hopeful that we can reach a compromise that will allow us to protect valuable jobs and keep our promises to communities," she said.

Kerr and House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said the GOP plan also is designed to ensure the state has enough money to continue highway maintenance at current levels after the transportation plan ends.

Under Sebelius' plan, the Department of Transportation projected a deficit $238 million in its budget for 2010. Republicans said their plan leaves KDOT with $141 million to carry into 2011.

Sebelius and the Legislature's Republican leaders have said they want to safeguard both the state's credibility and the high-paying construction jobs that highway projects produce.

Transportation Secretary Deb Miller has said that unless legislators act in the current session, the state will have to cancel $150 million worth of projects later this year and an additional $100 million each year into 2008.

KDOT has estimated the gap between available revenues and promised spending at $775 million into 2009, absent passage of a plan this year.

In setting up the transportation program in 1999, legislators promised to dedicate ever-increasing amounts of sales tax revenues to highway projects. But they quickly began diverting the revenue to other government programs as other funding sources declined, and no sales tax money was set aside for transportation in 2003 and 2004.

Both Sebelius and GOP leaders propose to resume the sales tax set-aside in 2006 at about $50 million. But the GOP plan calls for the set-aside to jump to $168 million in 2007, whereas the Sebelius plan increases it to only $105 million.
Sebelius has said a larger set-aside than the one she proposed would be unrealistic, given the demands of financing education, social services and other government programs.