By Rhonda Holman
March 10, 2016

Even if early childhood education advocates are wrong about there being a secret plan to sell off the state’s remaining tobacco settlement money for a $400 million lump sum – and the Brownback administration said “there is no deal or pending legislation” to do that – the measure that inspired the conspiracy theory seems unwise and unneeded.

Senate Bill 463 would abolish funds earmarked for children’s programs and economic development, and transfer to the state general fund that cash and sales tax money meant for highways.

The targeted revenue includes not only the multistate tobacco settlement payments, which are supposed to go to the Kansas Endowment for Youth fund and the Children’s Initiatives Fund, but also proceeds of the state lottery and state-owned casinos, and the dedicated sales tax for the highway plan administered by the Kansas Department of Transportation.

The legislation is being touted as a means to streamline accounting and improve transparency of the state appropriations process. But the bill’s redirection of sales tax dollars also seems like a reaction to the billboards blasting the state government for committing “highway robbery” by taking “$1 million per day” from roads and bridges and the other criticism of frequent withdrawals from what many now call the “Bank of KDOT.”

State budget director Shawn Sullivan as much as acknowledged the bill’s PR value in his Tuesday testimony to a Senate committee: “This is taxpayer money. It’s not KDOT’s money. We need to get away from ‘Bank of KDOT’ language.”

No, the real problem is that Gov. Sam Brownback and other governors have freely tapped the state highway fund to remedy budget shortfalls, undermining what earlier Legislatures meant to be strong, long-term investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

SB 463 would similarly make liars of the lawmakers who voted to create the KEY fund and CIF as an ongoing commitment to early childhood education and who wanted to ensure that gambling revenues would fuel the state’s economic growth.

As the bill would ignore legislative intent, it would make these and other earmarked uses of the funds subject to even more intense political pressures. Assurances that spending priorities wouldn’t change lack credibility, given the sweeping and borrowing going on in Topeka amid budget shortfalls. There is legitimate concern, for example, about whether $10.5 million annually in gaming proceeds would continue to support engineering programs at state universities.

As if those worries weren’t enough, Sullivan also said the legislation could have a negative effect on KDOT’s bond ratings.

Better to leave these earmarked funds alone, and not provide further cover for the administration’s budgetary maneuvers.

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