GOP created state’s transportation budget problems but can’t fix them

Scott Bauer, AP writer

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jennifer Shilling said in an interview with The Associated Press that it’s not up to Democrats to come up with a plan to plug a projected $1 billion transportation budget shortfall. Republicans have been in complete control of the governor’s office and Legislature since 2011 and will return in 2017 with even larger majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

“Republicans own this,” Shilling said of the transportation problem. “They own this Legislature right now. I don’t think it’s up to the minority party to have all the answers.”

Democrats have proposed broadening the base of funding for the state’s transportation budget, including raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Whether to even consider higher taxes and fees is dividing Republicans.

Assembly GOP leaders have said everything should be considered. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos advocates for considering tax and fee increases. He distributed a briefing document to Republican lawmakers and reporters titled “No Easy Answers.”

That’s the message Democrats were delivering on the campaign trail, Shilling said.

“We can have a role in finding things that are acceptable,” she said. “Clearly Democrats can propose something but it’s the Republicans who are in control of the governor’s office and Senate and Assembly right now. And the Republicans are fighting right now. It’s like the right hand doesn’t agree with what the far right hand is wanting to do.”

Fourth worst in the nation

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Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling

Gov. Scott Walker has insisted he won’t raise taxes to pay for roads, unless there’s a corresponding cut someplace else. Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he won’t pass a roads funding plan that Walker would veto, and two Republican senators earlier this week spoke out in opposition to raising taxes.

At a public hearing Dec. 6, Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said the condition of Wisconsin’s roads will worsen over the next 10 years and projects will be delayed for decades without an increase in spending.

The U.S. Department of Transportation ranks Wisconsin’s roadways as the fourth worst in the nation.

Gottlieb’s department’s budget would borrow half a billion dollars over the next two years and save nearly half a billion more dollars by delaying work on major projects. Shilling said Democrats agree with some Republicans who are arguing that more borrowing is not the answer to paying for the state’s roads and other transportation needs.

Democrats return to the Senate with their smallest numbers since 1971. Republicans will have a 20-13 majority there and a 64-35 majority in the Assembly. That is their largest since 1957.

Gottlieb testified on Dec. 6 that the percentage of Wisconsin roads in poor condition would double to 42 percent over the next decade, projects could be delayed for decades, and incoming revenue will not keep pace with inflation.

Even so, Gottlieb defended the department’s two-year budget proposal, which he said was written under orders from Walker not to increase the gasoline tax or raise vehicle fees.

“The governor has made a determination this is not the right time to raise taxes on Wisconsin businesses and families,” Gottlieb said.

Walker has always preferred borrowing money to be paid for at a later date — presumably when he’s out of office — over raising taxes and fees. As Milwaukee County Executive, he left the county in so much debt that his successor Chris Abele said taxpayers were paying more to service Walker’s debt than to provide services to residents.

But bragging rights to not raising taxes is an ace in the hole for a right-wing Republican with higher political ambitions, such as Walker.

‘Disinvestment’

Rep. John Nygren, a Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, supports considering gas and fee hikes to pay for roads through the transportation budget. He joined with Democratic Rep. Robb Kahl in saying the current spending request is a disinvestment in roads that will hurt the state’s economy and make roads less safe while not addressing growth or other needs.

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John Nygren, Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s budget writing committee

Kahl and Gottlieb were members of a commission four years ago that studied Wisconsin road funding and needs for the future. The “disinvestment” level was the lowest of four that a commission envisioned for road funding over the next decade. That level imagined spending on transportation being flat, a scenario that envisioned “significant deterioration” in state and local roads and bridges with projects delayed for years.

“I actually think this budget looks lower than disinvestment,” Kahl said.

The commission four years ago issued a series of recommendations to improve the condition and safety of Wisconsin’s roads and transportation systems, including raising taxes and fees. Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored those recommendations.

But some Republicans are saying now is the time to consider raising taxes and fees, even though Walker and others insist it is not.

“This is not something I’m excited about, but we should consider all our options,” Nygren said.

‘Not a sustainable path’

The Dec. 6 hearing, which included invited testimony from road builders, environmentalists, local governments and others, was called by the Assembly GOP to gather information as leaders work on an alternate spending proposal. The fight over road funding, which faces a nearly $1 billion shortfall, is expected to be a central focus of the Legislature next year as lawmakers work on writing a new two-year state budget.

The DOT budget proposal that Walker supports calls for borrowing $500 million over the next two years and saving $447 million by delaying work on major projects. Delayed work would include the final phase of rebuilding and expanding Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange and expansion of Madison’s Beltline and nearby roads in the southwestern part of the city. There would also be no money for expanding Interstate 94 from Milwaukee south to Illinois.

Gottlieb defended the DOT’s management in recent years, referring to a report circulated to lawmakers this week that the department estimates it saved nearly $100 million this year alone thanks to a variety of efficiency measures. And, he said the estimated cost to operate a midsized vehicle in Wisconsin was lower than in neighboring states.

But he also testified that incoming revenue to the department was projected to increase 0.51 percent annually in the face of inflation increasing 1.8 percent.

“This is not a sustainable path,” said Democratic Rep. Deb Kolste, of Janesville.

Democrats blame the shortfall on Walker’s massive tax cuts for Wisconsin’s wealthiest families and “incentives” for politically connected corporations.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.