TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate said Friday they're hoping to revive Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to merge the operator of the state's only turnpike with the Department of Transportation, which has raised fears that tolls would be used to plug unrelated budget holes.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said the Legislature currently doesn't have the power to oversee the finances of the Kansas Turnpike Authority, which manages the 236-mile toll road in south-central and eastern Kansas. She said the authority's $90 million in reserves is evidence it is overcharging motorists.
Brownback's administration estimated that merging the 50-year-old authority into KDOT would save $30 million over the next two years, but it hasn't provided details. Under the Republican governor's plan, the transportation secretary, who already serves on the authority's five-member board, would become chairman and turnpike CEO.
But the House opted instead to pass a bill this week that would expand how KDOT and the authority contract with each other by allowing them to share administrative services and collaborate on projects for roads connecting to the turnpike.
Legislators in both parties questioned whether any change was necessary and said they didn't want toll revenues being diverted to non-turnpike uses, something the Brownback administration said it isn't planning to do.
Brownback has said he is pushing the merger to promote efficiency and because it makes no sense for Kansas to have two transportation agencies.
"This move would allow our state's highway system to be managed in a more efficient manner that draws upon the expertise of both and result in significant savings," Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said in a statement Friday.
But during a news conference held by GOP legislative leaders, Wagle said the authority's reserves are among "other pots of money" that could help with the budget.
Wagle said a full merger is "an excellent idea." Two other Senate GOP leaders, Vice President Jeff King of Independence and Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Hutchinson said they see potential efficiencies.
"The Turnpike Authority has held onto its independence and its power, but the truth of the matter is, I think the right thing to do is to merge it into Transportation and have the state overseeing that budget," Wagle said. "There is absolutely no financial oversight in the Legislature."
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the proposed merger is a bad idea and called the Turnpike Authority "a shining example of efficiency."
"It's not only the best-maintained highway in the state, it's one of the best-maintained highways in the nation," Hensley said.
Some legislators consider the timing of the proposal suspicious, as it comes after massive income tax cuts last year that created a budget shortfall.
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"It's another example of trying to raid another pot of money to pay for income tax cuts," Hensley said.
The toll road, opened in 1956, runs from the Oklahoma border in south-central Kansas, north to Wichita, then northeast to Topeka and east to Kansas City. It uses no state dollars but collects about $84 million annually in tolls.
Turnpike CEO Michael Johnston said the reserves represent the authority's attempt to save for future projections, such as replacing bridges.
"That's our savings account that provides a cushion to our business so we don't have to live week to week," Johnston said.
The authority increased tolls in February, boosting the cash charge an average of 10 percent for cars and light trucks. The charge for a full, 236-mile trip in those vehicles is $12 in cash and $9.75 for electronic K-TAG users.
"I think the tolls exceed the needs of the turnpike," Wagle said. "I think when the public gets a chance to look at that budget and it's more transparent, they'll be glad."
Asked about the push for a merger, Johnston, a former state senator and transportation secretary said: "They're the policymakers, and that's their prerogative."
Even if no merger bill passes, Brownback could exercise a strong influence over the turnpike in the future. State law gives the governor two appointments to the authority's board, while also designating the transportation secretary as a member.
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