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Lawmakers restore air subsidy, seek to send it directly to counties

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Thursday, March 28, 2013, at 11:18 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, August 23, 2013, at 4:55 p.m.

— After briefly zapping state subsidies for airlines in Wichita and Garden City in 2015, lawmakers this week reinstated the $5 million to bolster flight service.

But they say they now want the money to go directly to county governments rather than through the Regional Economic Partnership that, by law, has been managing the program for years at the state’s request.

The proposal, which is likely to evolve as House and Senate negotiators work through their differences in their spending plans, comes less than a week after REAP CEO Joe Yager resigned after sending sexually explicit e-mails to members of a water committee.

Yager said he accidentally pasted the sexual material from a spam e-mail after trying to delete it.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican who is the House’s chief budget negotiator, said the shift isn’t tied to recent controversy.

He said he strongly supports REAP, but he has heard from some in Sedgwick County who say the money should go straight to county governments, which would then evaluate requests from airlines and allocate the money. He didn’t say who advocated for that.

“They’re going to give it to (Sedgwick County and Garden City), right? So there’s no reason to have a holding point with REAP,” he said.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he’s not concerned about how the money gets to the airfares program as long as it gets there. The new proposal, he said, would initially channel through the state’s commerce department.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said people may have some concerns about the uncertainty of leadership at REAP because of Yager’s departure. But, he said, the shift makes sense to him.

“I feel that the taxpayers of Kansas would be better served if a governing body like the county commission would handle the funds instead of some bureaucrat,” he said. “I would much rather see it go directly to counties because I have the utmost confidence in our elected officials in Sedgwick County.”

Sedgwick Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn, who was key in getting the airfare subsidy approved, said it makes sense to reevaluate how the money is allocated, but new policy shouldn’t be done through the state’s budget.

“I hate to see us lose any kind of oversight of this,” she said. “Maybe the need goes away in southwest Kansas and is needed somewhere else. But we need somebody who’s constantly looking at where’s the biggest bang for our buck, especially as it deals with air travel.”

For years, REAP has evaluated requests for airfare subsidy money from across the state. It has traditionally been awarded to airlines flying out of Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport. But in 2011, REAP awarded $250,000 to provide commercial jet service to Dallas out of the Garden City Regional Airport.

Jeff Longwell, a Wichita City Council member and REAP executive board member, said channeling the money directly to counties could erode the regional support and oversight provided by REAP.

“It seems like REAP continues to get beat up for all of the wrong reasons on Affordable Airfares when we expanded that to Garden City, which is exactly what the state envisioned,” he said. “Affordable Airfares is bigger than just Sedgwick County.”

Longwell said REAP is poised to announce an interim CEO following Yager’s departure and that news of the Yager’s e-mails shouldn’t affect a program that benefits people across the state.

“I’ve never heard anyone tell us they’re dissatisfied with how REAP administered the program,” he said.

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