Gas tax in­crease eyed for roads

The Wichita Eagle - - Front Page - BY JONATHAN SHORMAN [email protected]­chi­taea­gle.com

Kansas driv­ers may pay more at the pump — or pay a fee if they own an elec­tric car — to help fund fu­ture high­way im­prove­ments, un­der ideas pro­posed by state law­mak­ers and of­fi­cials.

One sen­a­tor says the cur­rent gas tax of 24 cents a gal­lon should in­crease to 29 cents a gal­lon.

Dis­cus­sion of a higher gas tax and fees comes as Kansas be­gins craft­ing a new long-term trans­porta­tion plan that will guide high­way projects for years to come.

A state task force fi­nal­ized rec­om­men­da­tions on Thurs­day for a pro­gram that will even­tu­ally re­place T-WORKS, the 10-year, $8 bil­lion trans­porta­tion plan that kicked off in 2010.

The rec­om­men­da­tions call for fund­ing through sales taxes, the gas tax and a fee on elec­tric ve­hi­cles, among other sources. The rec­om­men­da­tions don’t sug­gest how high the gas tax should go.

The Leg­is­la­ture and the Kansas De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion will use the rec­om­men­da­tions as they de­velop a new pro­gram in the com­ing year.

Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Man­hat­tan, voiced sup­port for rais­ing the gas tax by 5 cents. He said if Kansas is go­ing to have a high­way plan, it needs a steady stream of fund­ing.

“A gas tax means that peo­ple who are us­ing the roads pay for them, and I think user fees are the fairest form of tax­a­tion we have,” Hawk said.

Kansas now charges 24.03 cents per gal­lon on ga­so­line (ex­clud­ing fed­eral gas taxes). Ev­ery 5 cents of tax pro­duces about $90 mil­lion a year.

Kansas has one of the lower gas tax rates in the coun­try. The high­est-taxed state is Penn­syl­va­nia, at 58.7 cents a gal­lon, while the low­est is Alaska at 14.65 cents a gal­lon, ac­cord­ing to rank­ings from the Tax Foun­da­tion.

Other task force mem­bers cast doubt on whether higher taxes would find sup­port in the Leg­is­la­ture.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Re­pub­li­can, pre­dicted law­mak­ers won’t have the ap­petite for sig­nif­i­cant rev­enue in­creases, ei­ther by im­pos­ing a large fee or rais­ing the gas tax.

“I don’t think it gets through the Leg­is­la­ture,” Claeys said.

Charg­ing the own­ers of elec­tric ve­hi­cles an an­nual fee also emerged as pos­si­ble source of rev­enue.

Sup­port­ers say a fee would en­sure elec­tric ve­hi­cle own­ers pay their fair share to help main­tain the state’s high­ways since they don’t pay taxes on ga­so­line pur­chases. But op­po­nents fear a fee would elim­i­nate an in­cen­tive for driv­ers to pur­chase the more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly ve­hi­cles.

A fee of $200 per ve­hi­cle could gen­er­ate $40 mil­lion a year by 2030. But it would only bring in about $250,000 a year im­me­di­ately, ac­cord­ing to Julie Lorenz, a con­sul­tant with Burns & Mc­Don­nell who me­di­ated the task force meet­ing Thurs­day.

That’s be­cause the num­ber of elec­tric ve­hi­cles are ex­pected to grow over time.

“I would highly rec­om­mend it’s some­thing that you should start be­cause it’s a source that will grow over time,” Lorenz told task force mem­bers.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedg­wick Re­pub­li­can who co-chaired the task force, said elec­tric ve­hi­cle own­ers she has spo­ken to un­der­stand that they are not pay­ing any­thing in gas tax.

“The four wheels are still on that pave­ment. So there needs to be some kind of a con­nec­tion and a part­ner­ship there,” McGinn said.

The rec­om­men­da­tions ap­proved Thurs­day call for com­plet­ing ex­ist­ing T-WORKS projects within about four years. Fin­ish­ing those projects will cost up­wards of $500 mil­lion.

Be­yond that, the task force dis­cussed sce­nar­ios that would pro­vide ap­prox­i­mately $500 mil­lion for new ex­pan­sion projects in the fu­ture. The task force didn’t rec­om­mend spe­cific projects.

Over the past sev­eral years, Kansas took more than $2 bil­lion orig­i­nally in­tended for high­way fund­ing and spent it else­where.

Much of that came as then-Gov. Sam Brown­back sought to bal­ance the bud­get amid short­falls in tax rev­enue.

The task force on Thurs­day grap­pled with how to en­sure that in the fu­ture high­way fund­ing is ac­tu­ally spent on high­ways. The panel ex­plored so-called lock­box leg­is­la­tion that would pro­hibit trans­porta­tion fund­ing from be­ing spent else­where.

Law­mak­ers were split on whether a lock­box would be valu­able. Some doubted that it would work or feared that the Leg­is­la­ture might need the money dur­ing a re­ces­sion.

“If we were to lock this money into a lock­box and we get our­selves into a re­ces­sion … the place we would have to go is K-12 ed­u­ca­tion, which would only pre­cip­i­tate an­other court law­suit and we just can’t put our­selves into that sit­u­a­tion,” said Rep. Troy Way­mas­ter, a Bunker Hill Re­pub­li­can who chairs the House’s bud­get com­mit­tee.

But Rep. Shan­non Fran­cis, a Lib­eral Re­pub­li­can, said some type of lock­box would be ben­e­fi­cial.

“I don’t think there’s a way we can en­sure con­sis­tent fund­ing for trans­porta­tion” with­out a lock­box, he said.

The task force’s re­port will be fi­nal­ized in the com­ing days. It’s due to the Leg­is­la­ture by the end of Jan­uary.

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