Walker, GOP leaders differ on plugging $1B shortfall for fixing Wisconsin roads

Louis Weisberg, staff writer

With Wisconsin roads rated among the nation’s worst, raising funds to shore up the state’s crumbling infrastructure will be one of the biggest issues facing the Legislature next year.

It’s an issue that pits Gov. Scott Walker against his own party. He and the  state’s Republican leaders have created a nearly $1 billion gap in Wisconsin’s transportation budget, but now Walker refuses to support raising taxes or fees to plug that hole. As he prepares for a likely third gubernatorial run, Walker probably doesn’t want to be seen as going back on his pledge never to raise taxes or fees.

But Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren says increasing funding for Wisconsin roads has to be an option. To help make his case, Nygren scheduled an unusual mid-summer conference call with reporters to release a memo by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing that just to pay for road projects that have already been approved, the state will need to come up with $939 million more.

Nygren urged Walker, lawmakers and the public to be open to all options — including raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

“We need to have a dialogue about how we’re going to fund our transportation needs,” said Nygren, who is from Marinette. “All options need to be on the table.”

Walker responded by reiterating his position in a statement saying, “Raising taxes and fees is not the answer.”

“Under our administration, we will keep it a priority to live within the means of the hardworking people of Wisconsin,” Walker said. “That is a commitment I will honor.”

Walker, however, has slashed state revenues by giving massive tax breaks to the wealthiest Wisconsinites and many millions of dollars in tax incentives to corporate cronies who failed to produce promised jobs. He’s also spent millions of dollars on politically motivated lawsuits to fight against LGBT and immigration rights. At the same time, he’s funded federal lawsuits for partisan gerrymandering, as well as for restrictions on abortions and voting rights. All of those issues were already winding their way through the court system in cases filed by tea party leaders of other right-wing states.

Walker delays upkeep on Wisconsin roads

Walker directed his Department of Transportation secretary to deliver a budget that identifies cost savings and prioritizes needs, but that doesn’t raise taxes or fees. Doing that will delay road expansion work and upkeep on all but the state’s most-traveled highways.

The department’s budget is due on Sept. 15, and it will serve as the starting point for the governor and Legislature as they work on the state’s two-year spending plan to be passed in mid-2017.

In the last budget passed in 2015, Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion, but the Legislature scaled that back to $850 million. They rejected recommendations from a bipartisan transportation commission in 2013 that called for increasing the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, raising other transportation fees and using a mileage-based vehicle registration system.

Republicans have neglected Wisconsin road funding and they’re only talking about it now because an election is looming, said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.

“On this issue, the Republican leadership’s word means nothing,” Barca said in a statement.

Nygren said borrowing more money and delaying projects is “not necessarily the fiscally conservative position.” But, he added, not addressing the problem will force future generations to pay for higher levels of borrowing without a substantial benefit.

Still, he took no position on how much additional borrowing he would agree to endorse.

Nygren said his preference would be to raise the gas tax because everyone who drives in Wisconsin, not just those who register vehicles in the state, would be affected. The state’s 30.9 cents per gallon gas tax is has not been raised since 2006.

Reporting for this analysis was provided by The Associated Press.