Topeka Alternatives to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' plan to use Kansas Turnpike tolls to pay for repairs at state universities already are floating among legislators, including a proposal to require college towns to impose special property tax levies.
Sebelius wants to provide $575 million over six years to the six state universities to help them tackle a backlog of building repairs and maintenance. Her plan includes issuing
$300 million in bonds, then paying them off with revenues generated by higher turnpike tolls.
Some prominent Republicans were searching this week for alternatives, only a day after Sebelius proposed her tolls-for-universities plan. Some GOP leaders argue turnpike fees should be used to maintain and improve the toll road, and the trucking industry views Sebelius' proposed toll increases - 25 percent, phased in over seven years - as burdensome.
"There's always an alternative here to any issue, and so there's several that are in play," said House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls.
Last year, the state Board of Regents said universities face a backlog in maintenance and repairs of $727 million, though it later reduced its list to
$663 million when legislators began questioning individual items. Some lawmakers - Neufeld included - believe the cost of truly critical projects is significantly lower and that the regents should be forced to be more selective.
Neufeld and other Republicans note that community colleges receive support from property taxes levied in their home counties. Some question whether it's fair for their communities to pay such levies when Kansans living near state universities don't.
Nor would using local property tax revenues to help finance universities be unprecedented. Both Wichita State University and Washburn University in Topeka receive such dollars, a legacy of their days as municipal institutions.
"Maybe there needs to be a local mill levy where the regents universities are, to help defray those costs," Neufeld said. "That's one thing I think that's on the table."
But if a torrent of criticism greeted Sebelius' proposal involving turnpike tolls, new local property taxes might prove as unpopular.
Wichita State University President Donald Beggs said local property tax levies support community colleges because they're regional institutions.
"A university serves the state," Beggs said. "I think it's a little different issue."
Sen. Greta Goodwin, D-Winfield, cited the same reason for rejecting new property tax levies in university communities.
"I do not think that'd be a popular piece of legislation," she said.
Other legislators said Kansans won't stand for a property tax increase. Sebelius' plan was designed to avoid a general tax increase.
"As I travel around Kansas communities talking to business owners, farmers and residents, they tell me the worst of all taxes is property tax," she said in a statement.
Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Hays, said people in his district already complain that property taxes are too high.
"I don't think that's a good idea. That will really make people mad," he said. "Especially in rural areas."
Neufeld and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, said another alternative is giving potential donors tax breaks or other incentives to contribute to maintenance funds.
Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, said: "I think if the state would control its spending, we can take existing revenues and pay toward the regents' deferred maintenance."