Topeka Motorists would pay higher tolls on the Kansas Turnpike to fund repairs at state universities under a $575 million plan released Wednesday by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
"This plan is responsible and focused, and it allows us to enhance the academic mission of our universities now and in the future," Sebelius said.
But the plan, specifically the toll increase, drew fire.
House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, called it a "traveler's tax."
House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said, "I believe transportation funds should not be used for purposes other than transportation."
Republicans, getting wind of the proposal earlier, filed legislation to block toll increases from being used for regents schools.
The Kansas Turnpike, a powerful political force, also mobilized.
"We don't believe our customers should be responsible to fix a problem that they didn't create," said Michael Johnston, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Turnpike Authority.
"It's awful news for our customers," he said.
The proposal would increase the turnpike toll from $8.75 for the entire 236-mile road to approximately $12.75 over seven years, Johnston said.
Sebelius on defense
Sebelius defended her plan, saying it didn't raise taxes, Kansas Turnpike tolls would still be among the lowest in the nation and it addressed deferred maintenance at universities that had been mounting for years.
Of her critics, she said, she was open to other ideas.
Higher education officials praised Sebelius for providing a specific plan and expending her political capital.
"It's a pretty creative plan," said Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway. "The governor understands that deferred maintenance is something that requires an ongoing budget item."
Reginald Robinson, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, said Sebelius produced "a serious, creative and comprehensive proposal for addressing the challenging maintenance issues confronting our state university campuses."
The proposal calls for spending $575 million over the next seven years.
Of that amount, $300 million would come from a surcharge on turnpike tolls of up to 5 percent per year for seven years. "We do have some asset potential in the turnpike," Sebelius said.
Sebelius' plan also would accelerate payment of $75 million in bonds on a previous "crumbling classroom" initiative, which is similar to a recommendation by the Kansas House.
And the proposal would allow $200 million in loans from the state's Pooled Money Investment Board. Sebelius said her "Foundations for the Future" plan would also require the universities to set aside maintenance endowments for new buildings.
The six regents universities have said they have a backlog of about $660 million in needed repairs, many of which are critical to the schools' operations.
In 2004, for instance, a broken water pipe flooded the main administration building at KU Medical Center, causing an estimated $1 million in damage, officials said.
Last month, an 84-year-old water pipe on the campus of Kansas State University burst, disrupting classes in several buildings.
The issue has been simmering for years. Higher education officials say the repair projects keep piling up because the state gives them about $15 million per year for maintenance when they need $85 million annually.
Last year, the regents recommended a tax increase and borrowing to address the problem, but the proposal died in the Legislature.
In 2004, universities said they needed $584.5 million. That number increased last year to $727 million, including $285 million for the KU campus in Lawrence and the Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
But last week, lawmakers told school officials to pare down the list by removing repairs at buildings not essential to education, such as Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas University.
KU Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Lariviere said the top priority for KU would be $8 million in repairs to utility tunnels that carry heating, cooling, Internet and telephone lines.
"Some of these tunnels were hand dug by first- and second-generation Kansans more than 100 years ago," Lariviere said.
Another problem building is Malott Hall, which houses KU's chemistry department and pharmacy school, he said.
"Malott Hall opened in 1954, and it looks, feels and smells like 1954 in Malott Hall," Lariviere said. A broken sewer pipe on Tuesday reinforced the odor problems in the building, officials said.
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- Lawmakersgrapple with university repairs (01-26-07)
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- Crumblingclassroom pricetag continues to rise (01-17-07)