Kansas’ Insane Right-Wing Experiment Is About to Destroy Its Roads

Travel in Kansas, circa 2050.

Julie Denesha/Getty Images

Kansas has had trouble paying for much of anything since 2012, when conservative legislators decided to implement a bevy of right-wing economic policies—and lead their state into a fiscal crisis.

In order to keep funding its government despite dramatically decreased tax revenue, the Legislature has flipped all its piggy banks. One of them is the Kansas Department of Transportation—or what sarcastic Kansans now call “the Bank of KDOT,” for the stupendous quantity of money that has been diverted from its coffers to the Kansas general fund and state agencies.


Kneecapping the agency that builds roads isn’t just a great metaphor for Gov. Sam Brownback’s tenure. Like the cut to the state’s university funding, this damage will be most keenly felt years from now, when deferred maintenance and high debt loads take their toll. An ex-head of the Kansas Turnpike Authority said in December that the practice had created a “long-term disaster for our state highways.”


Here’s how my colleague Jordan Weissmann summed up Brownback’s four-year experiment in April:*

As many expected, the reductions have been a calamity for the state’s fiscal health. Kansas has found itself chronically short of funds, forcing legislators to slash spending on things like education and help for the poor. The state’s credit rating has been downgraded, and for all the trouble, its job growth has been absolutely anemic.


On Wednesday, Brownback announced that Mike King, the secretary of KDOT, would be resigning this month. King, who was appointed in 2012, has presided over a rather unusual period in Topeka finance.

Since 2011, according to the Kansas City Star, the state has diverted more than $1 billion in “extraordinary” transfers from KDOT. If you include “routine” transfers, from 2011 through the 2017 budget year the total diversion from the Bank of KDOT will amount to more than $2 billion.

That’s more than KDOT’s annual expenditures. It’s as if the state, which has the fourth largest number of public road miles in the nation, had taken away a full year of road funding.

The result was that KDOT decided to issue a record-setting $400 million highway construction bond issue in December, more than $100 million more than the agency had anticipated. That was only legal because the Legislature agreed to temporarily raise the agency’s debt service limit.


Even Kansas Republicans think it’s a bad idea. “That’s like a credit card on a credit card,” Republican state Rep. Russ Jennings told the Wichita Eagle in February.

King’s predecessor, Deb Miller, told the Topeka Capital-Journal this week that King “started as KDOT secretary at a time when the agency had a well-defined and solidly financed statewide highway program. He exits an agency deeper in debt and with a weakened revenue stream more subject to political whim.”

Brownback’s legacy will be grander, but we could call this the Mike King doctrine: plugging holes in the budget; leaving holes in the road.

*Correction, July 1, 2016: This post originally misspelled Jordan Weissmann’s last name.