Tag Archives: Zoo Interchange

Scott Walker says lawmakers who think the budget’s timing is important are ‘delusional’

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said yesterday he still does not have the votes to pass the state budget, and it seems likely that a $500 million financing plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks stadium will be debated separately instead of as part of the budget, as planned.

Gov. Scott Walker says it makes no difference when the budget passes, and the sense of urgency surrounding budget negotiations shows that lawmakers are “delusional.”

Fitzgerald told 620-WTMJ, Journal Broadcast Group’s conservative talk radio, that he is still working with Republican senators who want to see items “included, eliminated or modified” in the budget. The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee has not met since May 29 and has no meetings scheduled.

After winning re-election in November, Gov. Scott Walker said he wanted the budget to pass sooner than usual, presumably so that he could officially launch his presidential campaign. He touted the early approval of his prior two budgets.

But now, despite holding a stronger majority than ever in the Capitol, Walker’s budget is in a stalemate situation and he poo-poohs the delay, saying that that it really doesn’t matter when the budget passes.

In fact, Walker said there’s a “delusional mindset in the Capitol” — a jab at legislative Republicans and Democrats alike — about any harm being done if the budget does not get passed by the end of the fiscal year (June 30).

“If we go a week or two in July, unlike the federal government we don’t shut down,” Walker said. “Nothing happens.”

Republican leaders said their goal was to pass the budget in the Senate and Assembly by July 1, an aggressive timeline that they’re highly unlikely to meet with so much yet unresolved.

The budget negotiations are particularly tense this year due to a $2.3 billion budget deficit created by Walker’s tax and cash giveaway programs to corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals. The crony giveaways were coupled with Walker’s refusal to accept federal tax dollars for health care, rail transportation, Internet expansion and other projects.

Although Walker said it’s wrong to take federal tax dollars — paid for, in part, by Wisconsin taxpayers — for any of the items above, he’s eager to accept U.S. money for pet highway projects, even though audits have shown the majority of them are unneeded. A federal court recently ruled it would not help the state widen Highway 23 due to inflated traffic projections presented by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for that project.

Road builders are among Wisconsin’s most generous campaign donors, which has complicated the issue even more. Walker refuses to raise fees or taxes to pay for the massive construction projects. Such a move would destroy his presidential campaign. Instead, the governor wants to issue bonds to pay for the road work.

But GOP leaders refuse to raise the money that way, arguing that it merely shifts the cost to future taxpayers — a strategy that Walker became famous for when he served as Milwaukee County Executive.

Still, Republican leaders seem hesitant to delay work on the Zoo Interchange near Milwaukee, which remains a sore spot in budget negotiations.

Fitzgerald said Republican senators firmly believed that $800 million in cuts for state highway and transportation projects must not affect the ongoing Zoo Interchange work near Milwaukee. That’s a key difference between Assembly Republicans who want cuts in road funding to be spread evenly throughout the state.

The Zoo Interchange forms the junction of Interstate 94, I-894 and U.S. 45 just west of Milwaukee. The redesign of the interchange began in 2013 and is expected to cost $1.7 billion by the time it’s done in 2018, if it remains on track.

“It’s got to be completed,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not something to mess with. And we’re all going to have egg on our face if the busiest interchange in Wisconsin is hanging there undone for two years. It’s ridiculous.”

The Bucks arena deal is another ongoing source of division in the budget. Fitzgerald said a majority of Senate Republicans want to see the deal removed from the budget and voted on separately. He said that way Democrats from Milwaukee could register their votes in support.

Fitzgerald said one idea that has not been ruled out is placing a surcharge on ticket sales to help pay for the arena. The proposed plan called for $250 million in money from the public and $250 million from current and former Bucks owners.

Elimination of the state’s policy of paying prevailing wages on government construction projects is a third issue holding up budget negotiations. Tea party followers want to get rid of the law, which helps to shore up construction wages in the state as well as construction quality. Democrats and some mainstream Republicans believe the law contributes to maintaining liveable wages in the state.

Fitzgerald said Republicans discussed three alternative plans but have not been able to reach a middle ground. Two Republican senators — Duey Stroebel and Steve Nass — have said they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t repeal the prevailing wage at least for local projects.

Fitzgerald said he wasn’t frustrated with the status of budget talks, and his goal remains to have all 19 Republicans vote for the $70 billion, two-year spending plan. There are 14 Democrats in the Senate. That means Fitzgerald can only lose two votes to have enough to pass the plan.

Scott Bauer of The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Senate leader on budget deal: ‘I don’t know where we’re at’

Republicans who control the Legislature aren’t any closer to reaching a deal on a new state budget, with no agreements yet on how to pay for transportation projects or whether to back a financing plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said yesterday.

“I don’t know where we’re at,” Fitzgerald said before the Senate met to consider a bill that would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Democrats, who condemned the bill for the suffering it will cause women, called it an attempt to distract voters from the GOP’s floundering budget process.

Fitzgerald said there’s no agreement yet on whether to repeal or scale back the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires workers on certain public projects to be paid a wage based on a complex formula that critics say inflates their pay because of an over-reliance on union salaries. Backers of the law warn that overturning it will cause a free-fall in construction wages and quality.

Republican leaders have been trying to reach a deal with GOP Gov. Scott Walker on several unresolved issues in the two-year state budget. The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee has not met since May 29 to finish its work, and no meetings are scheduled.

The current budget runs through the end of June, but state government will continue operating into July under terms of the old budget if Walker has not signed a new one by then. Walker, who had urged lawmakers to get the budget done far ahead of July, has said he will not announce whether he’ll run for president until after he signs the budget.

“The governor gave us a very complicated budget,” said Republican Sen. Rob Cowles, of Allouez. “And complicated budgets don’t get done quickly.”

One of the biggest unresolved issues is how to pay for ongoing transportation projects, including the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee and the expansion of Interstate 39/90 and I-94. Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion over two years and has refused to consider tax or fee increases.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is among some Republicans who support increasing vehicle registration fee hikes in order to lessen the amount of borrowing. But he said yeterday that it is no longer an option, given Walker’s opposition. Instead, Vos said he supports cutting borrowing for roads by at least $800 million, but no exact figure has been settled on.

“We’d like to have a significant reduction,” Vos said at a news conference.

Vos, in a meeting last week with Walker and Fitzgerald, floated the possibility of doing no borrowing — a move that would delay road and bridge work all across the state. Walker said Friday he would agree to that, but it wouldn’t be his preference.

It is unknown how much of the proposed construction is necessary. A federal court recently ruled against U.S. dollars going toward a proposed highway-widening project approved by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The court said the project was based on false data, and land-use advocates have performed studies showing that most of the state’s road-building projects are unneeded.

But Fitzgerald said yesterday that doing no borrowing was unrealistic.

“I think a mix is where we end up, I just don’t know where that ends up,” Fitzgerald said.

Part of the discussion is how much flexibility to give WisDOT in deciding which projects would be affected by a funding reduction, he said.

Both Fitzgerald and Vos have said they don’t have enough votes to repeal the prevailing wage, and instead they’re looking at making restrictions. State Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Cedarburg, said last week that he wouldn’t vote for the budget unless it repeals the prevailing wage for local units of government.

“The caucus is really all over the place,” Fitzgerald said on prevailing wage. “I know they would like to coalesce around something, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Fitzgerald said senators have been talking about the Milwaukee Bucks arena financing deal — which relies on $250 million from taxpayers — and no decision has been made on whether to consider it outside of the budget, a move that could delay its passage.

Vos said Walker was personally calling on lawmakers to push them to support the Bucks deal.

GOP would increase sales taxes to fix potholes while borrowing $1.3 billion for unneeded highway projects

Do the potholes in your neighborhood look like they belong in Syria?

No surprise. The conditions of Wisconsin’s roads rank third worst in the nation, according to a recent study commissioned by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute.

The low ratings mark a dramatic decline for the state, which ranked 22nd in the country just 11 years ago. Fewer than half of Wisconsin’s roads rated as “good” or better, the report found.

According to the study’s researchers, the poor condition of our roads affects almost every industry and motorist in the state.

But now Republican lawmakers might give locals a new mechanism to maintain their roads — with a new tax. State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Halzehurst, and state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, have proposed giving voters the ability to increase their local sales tax by one-half cent to pay for road upkeep. That means people in localities that adopt the sales tax would then be paying four separate tax streams for road and highway upkeep.

Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which advocates for responsible land use, says the plan is highway robbery.

Most Wisconsinites believe the fees they’re charged for license plates, coupled with the gas taxes they pay when filling up their tanks, go toward keeping their roads in order. Those fees and taxes are collected into the state Transportation Fund. The original plan was to have the fund reimburse up to 80 percent of the costs of local road repairs to the communities where they were raised.

But times change. Today only about 20 percent of the money is returned to the localities where it’s paid. Instead, most of the money in the Transportation Fund pays for state highway projects, which, of course, do nothing to patch up the potholes that throw your car out of alignment.

Nor do they do much to relieve traffic, since many of the massive new highway projects are located on highway corridors where traffic use is declining. That’s because projects are based on obsolete WisDOT traffic projections.

Automobile use has dramatically declined as the state’s population is graying, car ownership among young people is falling and gas prices are volatile. Between 1981 and 1991, the number of miles driven in Wisconsin grew by a rate of 35 percent. In contrast, the growth rate from 2003 to 2013 was zero.

Researchers hired by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin compared the WisDOT traffic projections used for planning 11 upcoming major highway projects with today’s actual vehicle use of those highway stretches. They found that traffic counts on all of the projects are unlikely to come close to WisDOT’s outdated projections.

For example, the area of expansion on I–94 between Milwaukee and Kenosha is experiencing an annual traffic-rate reduction of 0.88 percent, far lower than the 0.75 percent increase projected by WisDOT. At the same time, the expansion work has caused horrendous traffic delays and accidents.

“WisDOT is projecting a 23-percent increase in traffic on I–94 near (Miller Park) by 2040,” said Hiniker. “However, actual traffic counts show that traffic has actually decreased by 8 percent along that stretch of highway. Present trends show that the WisDOT projections will never be achieved.” 

Despite these facts, Gov. Scott Walker wants to issue $1.3 billion in bonds to cover the projects already planned. The plan would leave the state that much more in debt, even as it faces a current budget deficit. The $1.3 billion is in addition to the money that’s already available in the Transportation Fund.

GOP lawmakers have balked at Walker’s highway borrowing plan, with most seeking to reduce its size at the least. Several have instead proposed to increase licensing fees and gas taxes, including Walker’s transportation secretary Mark Gottlieb last November.

But Walker has rejected that strategy, saying that fees are virtually taxes and he will not raise taxes.

Still, legislative Republicans are not on board, with even Walker’s most ardent supporters saying the state needs to find a sustainable solution for maintaining its transportation infrastructure. GOP state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who has overwhelmingly supported Walker’s policies in the past, complained that the bonding plan amounts to kicking the can down the road, a charge that Democratic supervisors on the Milwaukee County Board frequently leveled at Walker. The former Milwaukee County executive, Walker left the county with more obligations in debt repayment than money to spend on services, according to current County Executive Chris Abele.

Politics appear to prevent Walker from either endorsing the new taxes or cutting back on highway spending. Conventional wisdom is if Walker approved a tax increase, it would kill his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination. At the same time, road builders are among the most generous and dependable campaign contributors, and Walker could have his sights set on their financial support for his presidential aspirations.

So he’d rather borrow and, according to his critics, leave someone else in charge when the bill comes due.

But back to those potholes. In the past, property taxes filled in the growing funding gap between Transportation Fund disbursement to local governments and the cost of local road maintenance. But Walker froze property taxes in his first two budgets, leaving local lawmakers with no way to raise the money.

Now, faced with the choice of halting expensive highway projects, raising road-related fees or property taxes, the Legislature has floated the proposal of allowing local citizens to vote themselves a one-half cent sales tax increase. Ostensibly, Walker could then claim that he didn’t raise taxes — the people raised their own.

“It’s a hold-up,” Hiniker says. “The people are already paying taxes to maintain local roads, but their money is being used to build highways in other parts of the state. It’s unreal.”

Pay-to-play limits public transit funding

When it comes to getting where she has to go, Jamecca Cohee, 30, relies on the Milwaukee County Public Transit System for “everything, every day – Monday through Sunday,” she says.

The inner-city mother of three uses the bus for getting to work, shopping and taking her kids to school. Public transportation also takes her family to medical appointments, to visit relatives and to church.

In recent years, Cohee and other public transit riders have contended with continual rate increases, ever-longer wait times between buses and decreasing passenger safety. Every two years when biennial state budget talks draw near, they face threats of yet higher rates and further service reductions.

On Dec. 3, Cohee participated in a “community listening session” on Milwaukee’s public transit crisis, held at the Washington Park Senior Center. The event’s purpose was “to provide a place for people who rely on public transportation to be able to demonstrate why they rely on it,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, economic justice director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Her group is one of many that have joined forces to get the Assembly to create a funding mechanism for safe, reliable and affordable public transportation for people who can’t drive – a group composed mostly of the poor, elderly and disabled.

The event was titled “Still Fighting for a Seat on the Bus,” a reference to Rosa Parks’ history-changing refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama on Dec. 1, 1955. Advocates say public transit users are still victims of racism, because they are largely people of color whose transportation needs are wholly overlooked by lawmakers. At the same time, leaders of both parties in Madison lavish public funding on highway construction, much of which is demonstrably unnecessary.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, one of the event’s sponsors, also is part of a lawsuit filed in August to force the state to reconsider spending $1.7 billion on the reconstruction of Milwaukee’s so-called “Zoo Interchange” while slashing budgets for mass transit and road maintenance, such as filling in potholes.

“When our government makes decisions that disproportionately impact a certain group of people, particularly by race, we have to go through the courts to shine light on that,” says Stacy Harbaugh, communication director for the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our tax dollars are for all of us to use, but Milwaukee is taking money away from the people who need it the most.”

The ACLU and Midwest Environmental Advocates contend that WisDot overlooked federal laws mandating that the allocation of federal transportation dollars must take into account a proposed project’s impact on the environment as well as on communities of color – neither of which WisDot did in its Zoo Interchange planning, Epps-Addison says. (Typically, 75 to 90 percent of interstate road funding comes from the federal government.)

The Zoo Interchange improvements will benefit commuters to the lily-white – and blood red – suburb of Waukesha. Although that fast-growing area is home to many new jobs, it is almost impenetrable for people who don’t drive – and the majority of people who live there aim to keep it that way, according to public transit advocates. It’s not by chance that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, a quasi-governmental organization, is headquartered and holds its public meetings in Waukesha.

The suit was filed on behalf of MICAH and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

But the Zoo Interchange case is only one of many highway projects that suck money away from public transportation funding. Only about 6.5 percent of the state’s annual transportation dollars were allocated for public transit under the 2011-13 biennial budget, and Republicans want to push that number even lower, according to Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He estimated that only $212 million of the $3.3 billion allocated for transportation in the state this year went to public transit.

Many drivers believe that public transportation should have to pay for itself, arguing that their gas taxes pay for the roads they use. But that’s just a myth perpetrated by Big Oil and highway builders. In 2009, a national commission estimated that fuel taxes and other user fees accounted for less than 60 percent of transportation system revenue.

The majority of funding for public transit, as well as highway and airport costs, comes from property and other taxes from the general fund that people are forced to pay into whether they drive, fly or take the bus. 

Politics drives roads

Although Wisconsin highways appear to be among the least congested in the nation, fast travel times have failed to slake state lawmakers’ thirst for road building. In fact, even though highway traffic leveled off in 2004 – and is projected to remain near constant through 2023 – proposals for new roads and highway improvements continue to multiply. The reason is that massive amounts of public money are at stake, and highway builders pay lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle handsomely for the chance to stuff some of that money in their pockets. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s family and countless other politically connected families have become millionaires giving legislators money in exchange for lucrative road-building projects, whether those projects are needed or not.

“The people who build the highways have taken complete control of the state highway budget,” Hiniker says. “They’re essentially the highest paid state employees.”

Hiniker describes the state’s highway builders as a perpetual bipartisan lobbying machine. “In Wisconsin, the road builders have the strongest lock of any state that I’ve seen,” he says.

He says the scenario works like this: Road builders get rich off projects paid for by taxpayers. The builders then use their taxpayer-generated wealth to lobby and contribute to elected officials, who in turn reward them with more projects.

“The taxpayers are subsidizing the political contributions that road builders give to candidates who promise them more money to build more roads,” Hiniker summarizes.

Wisconsin ranks 13th in the nation on highway spending per capita – or 24 percent above the national average, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group. The actual need for building a particular highway project in Wisconsin is only a secondary consideration. The more pressing concern for lawmakers is the projected payout, according to public transit advocates.

As a result, Wisconsin is laced with “highways to nowhere.” For instance, there’s the $25 million interchange project in a cornfield 30 miles west of Milwaukee to provide easier access to a failed development called “Pabst Farms.” The development was never built due to the real estate crash, but that didn’t stop Gov. Scott Walker from pushing funding forward shortly after turning down $800 million in federal dollars for a high-speed rail project.

There’s a proposed $140 million project to widen Highway 23 in a rural area between Plymouth and Fond du Lac that would shorten drive times by no more than four minutes for the relatively small number of users, according to traffic studies. That project is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.

Despite the waste such projects represent, they are inevitably backed by local newspapers and positioned by local leaders as job creators. In reality, the lion’s share of jobs created by such projects goes to out-of-state planners, vendors and workers, analysts say.

Transit advocacy

Until recently, public transit riders had few champions and, in a political system in which money commands attention, almost no influence. Milwaukee residents like Cohee simply can’t compete with the rich special interests that drive the planning process.

Milwaukee has no regional transit authority to raise money and conduct local public transportation planning.

But the groups that organized the Dec. 3 listening session have joined with other grassroots progressive groups to change the power dynamic. They already flexed their muscle dramatically in the 2012 general election. Cohee was part of a program called “Ride and Register,” in which she and other transit users registered voters on the bus. They also asked their fellow riders to volunteer to fight for public transit funding and to get people to the polls.

Epps-Addison says the project yielded 700 rides to the polls on Election Day and created a base of supporters to lobby lawmakers on public transit funding. The project was a partnership between Citizens Action and the Transit Riders Union.

Gary Goyke, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association, says that public transit advocates are “in a better position” this year than last, when it took some last-minute creative funding by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to save Milwaukee from 30-percent cuts in mass transit. As a result, in 2013 there will be no fare increases or route cuts in Milwaukee County.

“We are determined,” Goyke says. “We are not going to give up.”

Good for business

Goyke says Walker has created a transportation commission that understands the benefits of public transit for the business sector and “is acknowledging that it erred in the past and is not going to take public transit out of the transportation fund” – as Walker sought to do in the last budget. Goyke says he’s encouraged by the selection of Mark Gottlieb, a Milwaukeean, as secretary of the Department of Transportation.

In their efforts, public transportation advocates hope to benefit from the passion of new and recently elected representatives from Milwaukee, including Goyke’s son Evan Goyke. Chris Larson, the new Senate minority leader, and others introduced a bill last January called the Workforce Mobility Act.

“Of the 140,000 rides provided daily by the Milwaukee County Transit Systems, 39 percent are commuters traveling to and from work – and for many this is their only feasible transit option,” Larson said. “The demand for viable transportation options is clearly there and we owe it to our workers and local businesses to provide the necessary support to our public transit infrastructure.”

While unpopular with the current leaders in Madison, public transit is widely recognized as the wave of the future across the country – and around the globe. Nationally, transit trips have far outpaced the growth of auto miles since 1995, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

Public transit is simply more sensible, its advocates say. According to their statistics, it saves 3.4 billion gallons of oil each year in the United States, prevents 541 million hours of traffic delay and reduces global warming pollution by 26 million tons.

“Ultimately, it’s the demographics that will change things,” says WisPRIG executive director Bruce Speight. “The demand for transit is exploding. If you build an infrastructure that is unfriendly to young people and old people, they will leave. Right now (Republican leaders) are building an infrastructure for the white middle class in the suburbs – for a disappearing status quo.

“The state of Wisconsin went for Obama and Baldwin. More votes were cast for Democrats than Republicans in state races … despite unprecedented voter suppression. The Republicans are holding on now through gerrymandering, but unless they get real with their policies, they’re not going to be able to hold on to their seats even in a gerrymandered state.”