Senate Passes Wichita Mid-Continent Airport Subsidies

Feb. 17, 2006
The bill calls for the state to provide $5 million a year for each of the next five years to subsidize AirTran Airways flights.

State subsidies for Wichita Mid-Continent Airport left the Senate on a 35-2 vote Thursday en route to the House.

Before departure, however, Wichita-area senators -- who touted the subsidies as a smart move to stimulate the state's economy -- were chided for their past failure to support casinos.

The bill calls for the state to provide $5 million a year for each of the next five years to subsidize AirTran Airways flights. Local governments and businesses must provide $1.67 million a year over the same period.

Senate approval of the subsidy plan comes five years after the body blocked a similar proposal.

In urging passage of the bill, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said the state's largest commercial airport is not competitive without subsidies.

"The result is that business and the general public lose," she said.

Starting in 2002, the city lured AirTran with subsidies, which in turn prompted other carriers to lower their fares. The result, McGinn said, has been $300 million in savings to passengers.

Noting that the bill was being touted as economic development, Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka wondered why Wichita-area senators have consistently opposed bills to allow casinos.

"I find that very, very ironic that these are the individuals standing before us asking us to support this bill," he said.

And Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, questioned how the state would pay for the subsidy without new revenue.

"You're cutting some other program if we don't pass expanded gaming," she said.

Both voted for the bill.

Money for the fare subsidies is to come from Kansas Lottery proceeds or, if those funds are depleted, from the state general fund. About $50 million in Lottery funds are earmarked for other economic development programs.

The Lottery has raised about $65 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Under the bill, $5 million would be sent each July 15 for the next five years to the Regional Area Economic Partnership, which will oversee how the state and local money is spent. The partnership is an organization with representatives from county and city governments in seven south-central Kansas counties.

The original plan passed the House in 2001. The Senate rejected it and later passed a sharply different version. The two chambers never reached agreement.

Since then, two elections have changed the makeup of the House.

Wichita-area senators were solidly behind the airfare proposal Thursday.

"When there's competition, the price goes down. When competition goes away, the price goes up the next day," said Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita.

Added Sen. Donald Betts, D-Wichita, "It is important that Kansas has a competitive edge."

Supporters contend that over the next five years, Mid-Continent will build its passenger base to a level that subsidies won't be needed.

But Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, argued that once the subsidies start, the state won't be able to cut them off.

"To think that you can ever get off of that train is crazy," he said.

"I have to oppose this idea. I think it's ludicrous."

Sen. Chris Steineger, D-Kansas City, also opposed the plan, while acknowledging that "Wichita does get gouged" on airfares.

"Sometimes the free market fails," he said.

Two other senators did not vote and a third was absent.

Wichita Eagle

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