Kansas House rejects Turnpike toll bill, gives initial approval for college athlete pay

Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Eastburough, shunned legislation for providing more leeway to the Kansas Turnpike Authority. (Jan. 13, 2021, photo by Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A bill allowing tolls collected along the Kansas Turnpike for other improvement projects was rejected Monday by House legislators.

The bill would have authorized the secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation to enter into an agreement with the Kansas Turnpike Authority to enforce toll payments. The secretary could then use tolls to support improvements on other toll-related projects.

This legislation comes after a bill passed in the 2019 session granted new authority to KDOT to develop toll projects in Kansas. The partnership between KDOT and the KTA was contemplated at that time, but the proposed legislation would have clarified that relationship.

While supporters of the bill said such measures were necessary to decrease highway congestion and continue to better Kansas transportation, opponents pointed to past broken promises by KDOT on toll projects as reason to oppose the bill.

“Every time I drive on the Turnpike, I keep remembering the promise that was made tens of years ago. When the Turnpike was built, the promise was, ‘We’re going to make it free,’ ” said Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Eastborough. “We’re going in the wrong direction in this whole thing, and this bill does encourage that.”

Several other legislators echoed Helgerson’s concerns. The bill, among more than 20 items debated Monday on the House floor, failed by a vote of 50-72.

The bill is also a direct response to a $550 million project to expand a section of U.S. Highway 69 — the state’s most congested four-lane highway — in Johnson County. To assist in funding the project, tolls would are being considered on the new lanes.

Rep. Charlotte Esau, R-Olathe, was split on the issue. Her greatest concern was that efforts to expand Highway 69 would be funded largely by people traveling from south of Overland Park, not those living in the area.

“So we are using non-local people to help bump up a local project so that it gets heard quickly because it has local support,” Esau said. “That kind of troubles me, and yet at the same time, we are dealing with the fact that our tax revenue is down when it comes to fuel taxes, and somehow we have to fund our roads.”

Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell expressed concern the more leeway provided to toll Kansas drivers, the more likely every road would one day be tolled.

Addressing that concern, Rep Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, said federal and state laws forbid the tolling of existing highway lanes. He also assured legislators to no avail that the tolls would not pay for the entire project in Overland Park.

“There was no consideration at all for this portion of the tollway to pay for the entire project,” Francis said. “It was only envisioned that it would pay for a portion of the project that would be decided after negotiations with the entity.”

While the toll bill failed, a bill allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness as soon as 2022 received first-round approval in the House.

The proposed bill would allow athletes at Kansas colleges and universities to sign with an agent or enter into endorsement deals once they are the institution. Student-athletes would not be compensated directly by the university for their play but rather may capitalize on their talents outside the school.

Kansas is currently one of about 35 states considering similar legislation to bills passed in California and Florida in recent years.

With Florida’s measure set to take effect July 1, proponents of the bill said acting swiftly is necessary to ensure Kansas collegiate athletics are on an even playing field with other states for recruitment.

“Other states are enacting similar legislation to this … so this keeps Kansas institutions on a level playing field until federal legislation is adopted,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita.

However, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, argued the bill failed to include necessary safeguards for financial equity between men and women or even between different sports. He also theorized it could lead to noncompliance with NCAA rules and thus result in issues with athlete or school eligibility.

“None of that’s been thought through in the committee’s deliberations because we only heard from three conferees,” Carmichael said. “The problem that we have before us is we want to pass legislation that is not ready for primetime because we want to make sure that the Jayhawks and the Wildcats and the Shockers have a good recruiting season.”