TOPEKA — A watered-down version of a proposal to partially merge the Kansas Turnpike Authority into the Kansas Department of Transportation and make the KDOT secretary the director of operations for the turnpike won approval in the Senate and House on Friday evening.
It now goes to Gov. Sam Brownback.
The move was a prominent feature of Brownback’s proposed budget this year, and the administration projected the merger would save the state $15 million a year. Officials never provided details of how that money could be saved.
Lawmakers and highway advocates feared the proposal was an attempt to move toll money from the turnpike to the highway department, which has traditionally had money taken from it to fund other state operations.
But lawmakers changed House Bill 2234 to say toll money can’t be used in any way beyond current law, which essentially restricts the money to turnpike roads and bridges. And it limited other parts of the proposed merger.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the bill could still make the two agencies more efficient.
“The intent is to keep this crown jewel and make it the envy of the nation,” he said.
Others saw it as an unnecessary move.
Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, called it “a U-turn on the highway at high speed.”
Donovan said the board now has two legislative appointees, two governor appointees and the secretary of transportation.
“It’s a very, very autonomous board,” said Donovan, who served on the board for eight years.
Under the proposal, Brownback’s appointed KDOT secretary, Mike King, would become the director of operations for KDOT and the KTA.
The KTA’s CEO, Michael Johnston, could be retained by the board. But many saw it as an attempt to oust a former Democratic lawmaker from a high-ranking position.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said the governor already essentially has control of the turnpike board and chairman.
“It feels very much to me like what we’re being asked to do is essentially get rid of the last standing Democrat in the administration,” she said, referencing the only Democrat on the KTA board. “If that’s what you want, go do it.”
Masterson said that’s not the intent at all.
The Senate approved the bill 26-13. The House approved it 76-44.