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

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.

News analysis | Scott Walker won’t raise gas taxes, insists on borrowing $1.3 billion for bogus highway projects

Gov. Scott Walker, for the second time in less than a week, said Monday that he won’t agree to raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees to break a legislative impasse over how to pay for highway projects.

“I’m going to keep my campaign promises,” said Walker, who didn’t specifically promise not to raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, but did say he wouldn’t let the overall tax burden go up in his second term.

Most of the highway projects proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation are actually pork for road builders, who are generous campaign donors. A federal judge recently recently ruled that WisDOT used vastly inflated projections to justify a major widening project on Highway 23, where traffic is way below WisDOT’s figures.

Fleecing taxpayers to keep road builders happy is an ongoing pattern in Wisconsin, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He said money for bogus construction projects are the primary reason that local roads in the state are in such disrepair.

When Walker was re-elected to a second term in November, he promised swift action on the budget given a larger Republican majority in the Legislature.

But the process is taking just as long this year as it did in 2013. That year the budget committee finished its work on June 5 and Walker signed it on June 30.

Figuring out how to finance all the unnecessary highway projects is one of the last pieces of the state budget puzzle to fall into place this year. The Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee had hoped to finish its work on Friday, but couldn’t get it done. It has yet to set its next meeting date, which was expected to be its last.

Once the budget clears the committee, it heads to the Senate and Assembly — both controlled by Republicans — for votes later this month. Walker has said he won’t announce a presidential run until after he signs the budget into law.

Republicans lawmakers are balking at Walker’s proposal to borrow $1.3 billion for roads by issuing bonds, but they haven’t been able to come up with an alternative the governor will back.

“We need to come to an agreement with the governor,” Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the budget committee said Friday. “He’s pretty much taken all of our options off the table and we don’t see the bonding out there as a great option.”

Walker didn’t budge Monday.

“I made it clear that while I support a vibrant transportation system, I don’t support raising revenues be it a gas tax or a vehicle registration fee without an offsetting reduction in taxes somewhere else in the budget,” Walker said. “And so far that hasn’t been in any of the proposals.”

Another sticking point in the budget is a financing deal for a new $500 million-plus arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing unidentified sources, reported last week that the deal would include $250 million from taxpayers and $250 million from current and past owners of the Bucks.

Progressives view the arena deal as yet another fleecing of taxpayers, who will shoulder for far more of the costs than its supporters have revealed. Nearly every day, buried costs to taxpayers are uncovered by reporters examining the deals’ details.

Walker said he hopes to have a deal on the arena by the end of the week.

Feds won’t pay for pork-barrel highway project that’s based on inflated WisDOT data

A federal court has halted a major highway expansion due to inflated traffic projections by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, prompting a land-use group to call for an immediate halt to all such projects in the state until they can be proven justified by traffic audits.

The U.S. Eastern District Court upheld the claim of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin that the proposed expansion of Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth was based on overblown traffic forecasts. The ruling makes the project ineligible for federal funding.

According to the group’s executive director Steve Hiniker, actual traffic along the corridor is only one-third of WisDot’s projection. Last year, 1000 Friends studied traffic projections used to justify 11 state highway projects and found that WisDOT’s average traffic over-count was 75 percent.

“Faulty planning at (WisDOT) has likely cost taxpayers billions of dollars in unjustified projects,” Hiniker said in a statement. “This is a huge win for taxpayers.”

Critics of DOT building plans have questioned the need for a number of projects, including the proposed almost billion dollar expansion of the I-94 corridor near Miller Park in Milwaukee. Gov. Scott Walker wants to issue $1.3 billion in bonds to pay for those projects. 

Political leaders nearly always support massive road construction projects, because highway contractors provide them with generous donations. For the public, however, the projects drain funds that would otherwise help municipalities maintain their local roadways, which have become obstacle courses of potholes in recent years.

Republican lawmakers have suggested allowing municipalities to vote for new property taxes in order to maintain their infrastructures, because there’s so little money left over from the gas taxes and registration fees that Wisconsin citizens pay. That money is diverted to unneeded highway expansions, Hiniker says.

According to Hiniker, unneeded highway spending also drains the general fund, reducing the amount of state money available for everything from school funding to fire and police protection.

Hiniker believes the Highway 23 ruling could have a dramatic effect on other highway building plans in the state.