TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) – Kansas voters who re-elected a Republican governor known for aggressive tax cutting are learning that the state won’t solve its serious budget problems without putting a normally sacrosanct asset in the crosshairs — its state-of-the-art highway system.
Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature this past week worked out plans for closing a $344 million deficit and allowing the state to pay its bills on time into the summer. The plans included cuts to predictable targets, such as education spending and public pension contributions, but also diverted money from highway projects, which are especially prized by the governor’s rural supporters.
The extent of the cutbacks brought home the impact of the income tax reductions that Brownback, an outspoken fiscal conservative, has pushed through since taking office in 2011.
Even a few of the Legislature’s most austerity minded members were taken aback by the blow to the highway program, which comes as other states are considering new ways of ramping up infrastructure investment — some by raising taxes.
“When I send out surveys and say, ‘What are the roles of government?’ — and this is not just my district — roads are generally at the top of the list,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, a southeast Kansas Republican who’s among the Legislature’s most conservative members.
Many of Brownback’s allies have supported the cuts he’s made to cover the revenue lost from his tax measures, which dropped the top rate for individuals by 29 percent and exempted 191,000 business owners altogether. Brownback has argued that lower taxes would attract more businesses to Kansas and benefit the economy.
But revenues have fallen short of expectations, and Kansas’ credit ratings were downgraded last year.
Brownback this week proposed cutting spending on public schools and state universities by $45 million, prompting education supporters to warn about potential hikes in tuition and losses in summer school programs and classes for at-risk students.
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“It is time to quit living in fantasyland,” said state Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from a western Kansas county who said it’s time for the governor to admit his tax cutting experiment hasn’t worked.
Brownback, said state Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, is “in a state of denial.”
Critics worried about potential cutbacks to roads last year, when Brownback was seeking re-election. He argued throughout his campaign that Kansas could have low income taxes and high-quality services, including its highways, which are among the nation’s best.
The idea of diverting $158 million for other uses touched a nerve in rural areas that are Brownback’s political stronghold.
Residents of the area northwest of Topeka have been waiting for the upgrading of a 60-year-old bridge linking the small towns of Willard and Rossville, where school buses are being rerouted because of concerns about the structure’s weight limit.
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Some fear the antiquated steel-pin design bridge may become unusable.
“We can’t stand by and lose our bridge,” said Sarene McCrory, owner of the Grounded Coffee House in Rossville. “It’s too vital for the community.” She said she’s gathering signatures on a letter to present to the Legislature.
The Department of Transportation says that big highway widening projects scheduled through 2019 will continue but that smaller jobs will be delayed.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, a conservative Republican from Salina who’s chairman of a budget subcommittee on transportation, said managing the delays will be highly sensitive.
“We’re going to be smart about this,” he said.
Brownback continues to defend his tax cuts and contends that diverting money from highway projects was helped solve immediate budget problems.
“If you’ve got a better idea, great. Let’s hear it,” he said this week. “Criticism, fine, but come up with your ideas.”
Kansas has stayed ahead of most other states on roads thanks to 25 years’ worth of investments in large programs.
Many rural communities see good roads and bridges as essential to their economic survival.
In Russell County, farmer Morris Krug said he’s worried about a planned $38 million upgrade of a 16-mile stretch of highway in the area.
Highway funds, he said, “should not be tampered with. They were put there to build roads in this state and no governor has the right to draw on those to balance his budget.”