TOPEKA, Kan. — A proposal for an $8.2 billion transportation program in Kansas cleared a Senate committee Tuesday, signaling that some legislators still hope to underwrite new highway projects despite the state's budget problems.
The bill would increase the state's sales tax and vehicle registration fees and authorize $1.7 billion in bonds to pay for road, rail, airport and public transit projects over the next 10 years.
The Transportation Committee endorsed the measure on a voice vote, forwarding it to the Senate for debate. The timing of that discussion is uncertain, but Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, promised, "We'll run it."
Some legislators question whether they should consider such a bill when the state must close a projected $467 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But supporters of a new transportation program contend it will stimulate the economy by creating high-paying construction jobs.
"It gets it on the table for debate," said Transportation Committee Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, a Thayer Republican.
The bill would increase the state's sales tax from 5.3 percent to 5.6 percent, starting Jan. 1, 2013.
Annual vehicle registration fees for motorcycles, cars, vans, and light trucks and farm trucks — which now range from $11 to $40 — would increase by $20 by 2014.
Fees for some trucks would increase by $100 by 2014; for the heaviest trucks, the increase would be $135.
The new program would follow a 10-year, $13 billion program that ended last summer. Reader's Digest recently ranked Kansas' 10,000-mile highway system the nation's best, but Gov. Mark Parkinson has said it could deteriorate quickly without a new program.
But even backers of a new program have some misgivings about the Transportation Committee's bill.
Sen. Les Donovan, a Wichita Republican who helped shepherd the 1999 program through the Legislature, said he'd prefer to increase motor fuels taxes instead of the sales tax.
Donovan and other committee members noted that in the past, when the state faced budget problems, it siphoned off sales tax revenues meant for highway projects to education and other general government programs.
Sen. Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican, said passing tax increases to finance highway projects might send Kansas residents the wrong message, that "everything's normal."
Leaders of the House's Republican majority also are cold to any proposal to raise taxes. They're pushing a proposal to erase the shortfall without higher taxes.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder agreed it's in the state's long-term interest to start a new program.
"Probably, this is the wrong time and atmosphere to consider it," said Yoder, an Overland Park Republican.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican, said legislators probably will have to consider a new transportation program as part of any "end game" to resolve larger budget issues.
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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