Negotiators agree to subsidize airfares

TOPEKA — State budget negotiators agreed Tuesday to put up $5 million to continue to subsidize affordable airfares for south-central Kansas, easing the anxiety of local leaders who had worried the funding was doomed because of the state's budget crisis.

But leaders cautioned nothing is a done deal until both chambers accept the entire budget and Gov. Sam Brownback signs off on it.

The Kansas Affordable Airfares Program had been one of many sticking points in budget negotiations the past two weeks. On Tuesday, negotiators came to the table with an attitude of compromise, perhaps due to a nudge from Brownback to get their work done before Thursday, the 90th day and traditional end of the legislative session.

Brownback included the $5 million for airfare subsidies in his budget. So did the Senate. But the House had held out until Tuesday, when Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, told Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, that the House would accept the Senate's position to fund the program.

McGinn has been a vocal supporter of subsidizing airfares, saying, "this is about jobs and the economy."

She appeared relieved after the compromise. "It looks like it's funded," she said.

Other legislators echoed that.

"I think it was hard work to get it included," said Sen. Jean Schodorf of the airfare funding, included in a package that also gives Washburn University $5.5 million. "It's good for Wichita."

The subsized airfares are crucial to attracting and retaining Wichita businesses, she said.

Local leaders agreed.

"I'm very excited because we have been watching closely, and quite frankly, I was worried," Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh said.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said he won't be ready to celebrate until the governor signs off on the budget.

"I'm overly cautious about these things," he said, adding, "I don't have to tell you how supportive we are here."

Fares in Wichita shot up drastically in 1997 after low-cost airline Vanguard left Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, and the city started hunting for ways to bring fares down.

In 2002, Wichita agreed to put up millions to guarantee revenue for another low-cost carrier, AirTran.

In 2006, the city convinced legislators that affordable air service in Wichita was vital not only for the region, but for the state. Lawmakers committed to spend $5 million annually to help subsidize airfares in south-central Kansas.

The five-year commitment was set to end this year.

Proponents of the funding pointed to an audit that showed that for every $1 it spends on the program, the state gets back $2.32.

Opponents said government shouldn't give handouts to private industry.

A federal study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics released last week showed Mid-Continent Airport ranked 43rd in average fares among the nation's 100 busiest airports.

The study showed that Wichita's average airfare in the fourth quarter of last year was $345 compared with the nationwide average of $337. Wichita's fares are lower than those out of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and Mid-Continent has been closing the gap on airfares out of Kansas City. In 2000, a news release from the city said, the fare difference between Wichita and Kansas City was $138; that difference is now $41.

"I think this is very positive," Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton said. "I think it's an important factor in maintaining and recruiting businesses. It helps us stay competitive and gives direction to the city and the county of what the future of the airport is."