It is not clear what the purpose is of a bill the Kansas House passed Monday that encourages the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the Kansas Department of Transportation to cooperate more. Is it a face-saving measure for Gov. Sam Brownback, who had called for a full merger of the two agencies? Or is this an incremental step toward consolidation and siphoning off toll revenue?
Also, why is House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, still counting on $30 million in savings from the merger? And what was up with Rhoades’ wild claim (for which he apologized Tuesday) that KTA president and CEO Michael Johnston had offered to transfer $25 million to the state if Brownback would drop the merger proposal?
Brownback proposed the merger during his State of the State address, saying the two agencies were one of the clearest examples of duplication in state government. His budget projects savings from the merger of $30 million over the next two fiscal years.
But the proposal was met with strong resistance from lawmakers who consider the turnpike a crown jewel of the state’s road system and who fear that toll revenue might be used for other purposes. Also, KDOT Secretary Mike King admitted that there is no breakdown of the savings.
So the House backed off of Brownback’s merger idea and approved a revised bill that would encourage more cooperation and allow the agencies to work jointly on roads that connect to the turnpike. But the messages about the legislation were mixed.
Some proponents of the bill reassured concerned lawmakers that nothing really would change, as the two agencies already are required to cooperate. But Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, argued that the KTA should pay off its debt and transfer the turnpike to the state. He compared the turnpike to an adult who still lives with his parents.
“It’s time to kick Junior out of the house,” Hutton said.
Critics of the merger note that the turnpike already pays its own way, and it is the state that wants to mooch off the turnpike’s revenue and reserves.
“My fear is we are just one statute away after this to capture those cash reserves,” said Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita.
Dillmore also challenged Rhoades during a House Appropriations Committee meeting Monday on why he was counting the $30 million in savings, noting that the amount seems “plucked straight from the air.” Rhoades responded with his claim that the KTA’s Johnston tried to buy off Brownback.
Johnston said the claim was “absolutely false, preposterous and laughable,” and he wasn’t satisfied with Rhoades’ apology. “How do I get my good name back?” he asked.
There likely could be some efficiencies if the KTA and KDOT merged. But given the unsubstantiated claims and muddled messages, lawmakers should be wary about fixing something that isn’t broken.