Topeka — The Kansas Senate on Wednesday put the pedal to the metal to deliver control of the Kansas Turnpike to Gov. Sam Brownback.
The Senate approved 26-14 a bill that would make Brownback's Secretary of Transportation Mike King the chairman of the Kansas Turnpike Authority and its chief executive officer.
State Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, sought to ease concerns that the KTA would be taken over by the much larger Kansas Department of Transportation. "It is not a merger. It is not a money grab," Masterson said.
To prove that, Masterson urged approval of an amendment to the bill that prohibited the use of toll revenue for anything other than the operation and maintenance of the 236-mile turnpike.
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the KTA board's most important decision is hiring the chief executive. Under the bill, that would be taken out of the board's hands.
"This is a huge change to take the autonomous nature of the board away from them," Hensley said.
One of the staunchest defenders of the turnpike, state Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said, "Trust me, it's a merger. KDOT will be running the turnpike."
Donovan described himself as a "huge supporter" of Brownback, but said this idea was a mistake.
"This is a sad day in the state of Kansas," Donovan said, calling the turnpike a "crown jewel."
He asked his fellow Republicans, "Why on earth would you take our very best run entity in the state of Kansas and want to change it, and put it under the control of the government?"
Of the 26 votes for the bill, 25 were Republicans.
At the start of the 2013 legislative session, Brownback urged putting the Turnpike Authority under KDOT, saying it didn't make sense to have two highway agencies.
Brownback said the merger would save $30 million over two years, although KDOT Secretary King has said he doesn't know how those savings would occur.
The bill approved by the Senate now goes back to the House, which passed a version that encouraged cooperation between KDOT and KTA.
Michael Johnston, the president and chief executive officer of the Turnpike Authority, could not be immediately reached for comment. In the past, Johnston has declined to comment on proposals under consideration for the turnpike, saying it is up to the Legislature to set policy for the state.