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.
Making the necessary investments in Wisconsin roads and transportation infrastructure is a no-brainer for Wisconsin residents. Keeping our economy moving and making sure that goods can get to market is about as pro-business and pro-worker as one can get. Good leaders recognize that.
But these days, moving forward on common sense transportation solutions is like wading through wet cement. Wisconsin is bogged down by Gov. Scott Walker, an entrenched ideologue who equates doing nothing with being principled.
Wisconsin currently ranks 47th in road quality, and earlier this month Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb gave up trying to fix that. Gottlieb waived the white flag, stating he would no longer seek any increase in transportation revenue in his next budget proposal because he knows the governor won’t budge.
Now the governor has doubled down, refusing to consider available options and explicitly prohibiting his transportation department from proposing any new sources of revenue. Acting like a stick-in-the-concrete is not leadership. As Wisconsin roads crumble, we need real leadership and we need to make tough decisions.
Nothing demonstrates a lack of leadership better than a lack of followers. Few Wisconsin legislators, including his fellow Republicans, agree with the governor’s political obstruction to maintain Wisconsin roads nor his fanatical opposition to reasonable policy. In fact, both Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke have openly opposed Walker’s stance on transportation funding, and both have called for new revenue.
Rather than working with the Legislature to ensure sustainable transportation funding, Walker insists that doing nothing — and being proud of it — is the only way forward.
This approach couldn’t be more wrong. Avoiding the responsibility to fund maintenance for Wisconsin roads costs motorists $6 billion a year. More importantly, refusing to fund the costs of infrastructure repair could end up costing Wisconsinites their lives: There are 1,970 bridges in Wisconsin that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
When it comes to the dilapidated condition of Wisconsin roads, we know what the problem is and how to fix it. We need leadership. Refusing to properly fund our infrastructure is not leadership. It’s negligence.
My fellow Democrats and I stand ready to solve Wisconsin’s transportation problems. We stand ready to lead.
Mark Spreitzer represents the 45th Assembly District.
Data released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation found the condition of Wisconsin’s roads to be fourth worst in the nation. According to DOT, 71 percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
But Wisconsin’s transportation chief said he wouldn’t ask for any major tax or fee increases, acknowledging that such a move would delay road expansion work and upkeep on all but the state’s most-traveled highways.
Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told the Wisconsin State Journal that his budget due in September will focus on maintaining the state’s bridges and highways, instead of expanding the well-traveled roads and preserving those lesser traveled.
In contrast to the budget proposal he submitted two years ago, it wouldn’t outline ways to increase funding for Wisconsin roads, Gottlieb said.
“The decision about whether or not that’s enough investment in transportation — or whether additional revenues should be raised to make more investments — is a decision that the Legislature and the governor will make,” he said.
Gov. Scott Walker told reporters that he stands by his commitment not to add a gas tax or raise vehicle registration fees unless there’s a corresponding decrease in state taxes.
“I’m not going to add to the overall tax burden on the hardworking people of the state,” Walker said.
Walker has initiated massive tax cuts for corporations and the state’s wealthiest citizens, but virtually increased taxes on the poorest and hurt the middle class.
In the 2015–2017 budget, Gottlieb asked for about $750 million in new taxes and fees, including those on fuel sales and new-vehicle purchases. But the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected those proposals, fearing it make them politically vulnerable after promising not to raise taxes.
The Legislature has slashed funding to the University of Wisconsin system and public schools in order to pay for tax cuts to the wealthy
If his latest budget request is adopted, Gottlieb said it would delay highway projects throughout the state, but it’s too early to tell which projects would be delayed and for how long. Many projects that are well underway could be halted, prolonging massive traffic jams and driver safety.
Walker said his priority would be maintaining existing infrastructure and addressing safety concerns.
“There will probably not be any whole new wave of major projects,” Walker said. “For the ones we’ve talked about, we’ll have to figure out ways we can continue those, but we won’t be adding huge new projects on top of it.”
Republican state Rep. Keith Ripp of Lodi said rural districts like his own “have already been hit hard by delays” in funding in the current budget.
“We really need to be looking at long-term funding solutions before our infrastructure starts negatively affecting Wisconsin’s economic growth,” he said.
Gottlieb said maintaining bridges and U.S. interstates and highways will be a priority. But he acknowledged that would come at the expense of maintaining other roads.
“That non-backbone system, which is about 90 percent of the state highway system, is going to continue to deteriorate in condition,” Gottlieb said.