Wisconsin lawmakers not sold on Scott Walker's transportation proposal
By Jessie Opoien
EDGERTON — Gov. Scott Walker’s administration would cut funding for state highway programs while providing more money for local roads and existing highways, delay some major projects and authorize $500 million in new bonding, according to a plan released this week.
The plan would not increase any taxes or fees.
Walker discussed the proposal Thursday at a news conference in Edgerton. He will use it to put together the budget he will submit to the Legislature in February.
The proposal would focus on "safety and maintenance" of existing infrastructure, Walker told reporters.
But both Democrats and Assembly Republican leaders say the plan is a political solution rather than a practical one.
Under the DOT proposal, the 2017-19 budget would cut $447.4 million from state highway programs while offering an additional $69.7 million for maintenance and an additional $65 million for local roads.
The plan follows the Republican governor’s refusal to raise taxes or fees to fund transportation projects, despite calls from GOP lawmakers to put “all options” on the table.
The state faces a nearly $1 billion shortfall for transportation funding, but the majority party has struggled to reach a consensus on how best to fill it.
While Walker and some Senate Republicans strongly oppose considering any increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said last week the same rigid opposition doesn't exist within the Assembly GOP caucus.
"It is a stop-gap solution at best. Or it’s a temporary political answer, but it still doesn’t address the long-term questions that are out there," said Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.
The proposal would authorize $500 million in new bonding — significantly less than the record $1.3 billion Walker proposed in his 2015-17 budget, and still down from what was ultimately approved by the Joint Finance Committee and signed into law. The budget ultimately authorized $500 million in bonding and an additional $350 million to be allocated by the Joint Finance Committee in response to DOT work requests.
Walker said he heard concerns from both citizens and lawmakers who said they didn't want "excessive levels of bonding." Nygren acknowledged the plan proposes less bonding than previous budgets, but said it's unclear whether the state has become too reliant on borrowing, noting the state currently spends 20 cents on the dollar on transportation debt service.
"I think it's getting unsustainable," said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, adding that he doesn't think Assembly Republicans would agree to it.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, was also critical, arguing the plan doesn't offer a long-term solution.
"While increased maintenance and preservation funding is important, it’s irresponsible to provide that funding by simply pretending the need to reconstruct and modernize Wisconsin’s freeway system doesn’t exist," Shilling said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he will wait to comment on individual components of the transportation budget until the context of the full budget request is available.
The proposal would also result in significant delays for some major projects. The Verona Road project on Madison’s southwest side (Highways 18 and 151) would be delayed two years, as would work on Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents the Madison area, noted this would be the second delay for the Verona Road project. Pocan, a former state legislator, said the delay is "costing Wisconsin jobs and putting the livelihoods of Wisconsinites at risk.
Reconstruction on a stretch of I-94 south of Milwaukee would receive no new funding, while work on Highway 15 in the Fox Valley would be delayed one year and work in Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth would be put off for three years.
Steineke applauded the administration's commitment to increasing funding for local governments, but said delaying projects will lead to higher costs in the future.
"Basically in this plan we’re kind of robbing from Peter to pay Paul," he said.
Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans praised the plan.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said in a statement the DOT proposal is reasonable and sustainable.
"Gov. Walker has kept his word by proposing a reasonable transportation budget that sets the right priorities and doesn’t increase taxes or the registration fee. He has provided an option that prioritizes the taxpayers’ ability to pay over the demands of special interests for massive new levels of government spending," Nass said.
Sen. Duey Stroebel said on Twitter the governor has shown "conservative leadership" by keeping his promise to not raise taxes.
Walker and lawmakers are awaiting the results of an audit of the state highway program, which could lead to adjustments to the budget proposal before it is introduced.
"One thing I'm going to make abundantly clear, though, is I make promises and I keep promises," Walker said. "I promised to the taxpayers I was not going to raise the gas tax or other associated fees without a corresponding reduction ... If people want to make changes to the budget, they need to be mindful of that."
Walker pledged to veto any changes made to the budget that would "add to the overall burden of the taxpayers of the state."
But Steineke questioned that position, arguing that Republicans have cut taxes significantly since Walker took office.
"I give him credit for sticking to promises, and he says that he won’t increase the tax or fee without a corresponding decrease somewhere else. Well, we’ve decreased taxes a lot since the governor first identified transportation funding as a problem," Steineke said. "So it’s not like we haven’t already reduced taxes — we just didn’t combine it at exactly the right time in order to satisfy that promise, I guess."
Still, both Nygren and Steineke said they think a solution can be reached.
Nygren said he would like to see consideration of measures such as implementing a full repeal of the state's prevailing wage laws or a "swap" of federal dollars for some state funds. But even those changes would likely not fill the shortfall, he said.
"Can we get there? I think we can, but we need to be able to have all the different tools on the table, not cutting different parts of the equation out," Nygren said. "Unfortunately, I believe that’s kind of what the governor is doing — only looking at half the equation."