TOPEKA — Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate said Friday that they hope to revive Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to merge the operator of the state’s turnpike with the Department of Transportation, inspiring fears that tolls will be used to plug unrelated budget holes.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she thinks the Legislature can’t currently exercise enough financial oversight 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 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 board, would become chairman and turnpike CEO.
The House opted this week to pass an amended bill to expand the specific permission the two agencies have to contract with each other so they could share administrative services and collaborate on projects on roads connecting to the turnpike.
Members in both parties questioned whether any change is necessary and said they don’t want toll revenue being diverted to nonturnpike uses, something the Brownback administration said it isn’t planning to do.
Wagle told reporters a full merger is “an excellent idea.” Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, and Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said they see potential efficiencies.
“The Turnpike Authority has held on to 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 during a Statehouse news conference.
“There is absolutely no financial oversight in the Legislature.”
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, 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.
Asked about the push for a merger, turnpike CEO Michael Johnston said, “That’s their business.”
“They’re the policymakers, and that’s their prerogative,” added Johnston, a former state senator and transportation secretary.