EDGERTON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans broke ranks with Gov. Scott Walker on his transportation budget proposal Thursday, warning the governor’s plans to delay a number of major projects will leave the state facing higher road-building costs in the future.
The opposition from some of the Assembly’s most powerful players could divide the state GOP next year as lawmakers consider whether to include the plan in the final 2017-19 state budget.
“This budget request falls short of addressing the long-term funding crisis in our transportation budget,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Majority Leader Jim Steineke, Assistant Majority Leader Dan Knodl and Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said in a joint statement. “It is a political solution, not a real solution.”
Funding road expansion and maintenance has become a major headache for legislators in recent years. The roads budget is funded with money generated through the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration fees. With more drivers turning to fuel-efficient vehicles and driving fewer miles, revenue has dropped.
Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion in the last state budget to pay for roads, but lawmakers scaled that back to $850 million. It turns out that’s not enough; the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated the state would need $939 million more just to finish projects already approved.
The governor has refused calls to raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees. On Wednesday, his administration announced that the governor’s executive budget will include a plan to provide $65 million more for local government road work and set aside $65 million for county and state maintenance work, up $69.7 million over the last budget.
The plan also calls for borrowing $500 million and cutting $447 million by delaying a number of major projects, including work on the final phase of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange rebuild and Madison’s Beltline. The plan would devote no money toward a plan to reconstruct Interstate 94 from Milwaukee south to Illinois, leaving the project half-finished. Work on expanding Interstate 39/90 between Madison and Illinois would remain on pace. So would work on Highway 110/441 in the Fox Valley.
Walker said during a morning news conference Thursday in an Edgerton parking lot overlooking work on I-39/90 that he kept his promise not to raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees and minimized borrowing. He vowed to veto any increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees lawmakers might insert into the budget that result in a net increase on state residents’ financial burden.
“It’s really about priorities,” the governor said. “We put a priority on safety and maintenance and then looked at the most important projects that need to be done now.”
The backlash began almost immediately. Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, issued a statement before the news conference was over saying he was promised years ago that the I-94 expansion south of Milwaukee would be completed in the 2017-19 budget.
Vos and the other Assembly leaders said in their statement that more money for local roads shouldn’t come at the expense of delaying state projects. Those projects will only grow more expensive and result in fee or tax increases in the future, they said.
They promised to look for ways to save on costs but looked forward to a discussion that includes “every option available” to pay for roads in the long-term.
“It is more conservative to pay for projects today than it is to borrow the money and make our children pay the price,” they said.
The Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a coalition of road-builders and local governments, chimed in with a statement calling Walker’s proposal “short-sighted and troubling.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, played it close to the vest; his spokeswoman said he would reserve comments until he had reviewed the entire plan. Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater called Walker’s plan reasonable.
“He has provided an option that prioritizes the taxpayers’ ability to pay over the demands of special interests for massive new levels of government spending,” Nass said in a statement.
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