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Lawmakers try to lock down road budget (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Lawmakers are deadlocked over whether the state’s road construction budget should be protected from raids.

“I do want to handcuff the Legislature,” said state Rep. Mark Gottlieb, R-Port Washington. “Until we can assure voters that user fees are going to be used for the right purpose, they’re not going to support new spending.”

Gottlieb wrote one of four bills that would change the Wisconsin Constitution by prohibiting the use of transportation money for nontransportation purposes. Each bill has been waiting, without success, for a public hearing for at least eight months.

That might not change when the Legislature reconvenes in January. State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources and said he is not inclined to hold a hearing on such a bill.

“The decision about where to spend state tax money is always up to the Legislature,” he said. “It’s always ideal for any segregated fund to remain segregated, but circumstances change and there are emergency situations. I think the bill reduces our legislative flexibility.”

That’s the point, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. Legislative flexibility that allows borrowing and moving money has hurt the state’s general budget as much as it has hurt the transportation budget, he said.

The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States released the “Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril” report this month that listed Wisconsin as one of the 10 most financially challenged states because of its budgeting practices. The report cited Wisconsin’s pattern of borrowing to cover operating expenses as a reason it was one of the hardest-hit states during the recession.

“Our habits have not only hurt the transportation fund, but hurt its credibility,” Thompson said. “The first step in fixing this is to make sure there’s certainty that transportation money is going toward its intended purpose.”

The pressure on the state’s road construction budget is building. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation last week released its Connections 2030 report, which outlined the erosion of the state’s transportation revenue sources. Two days later, WisDOT announced it needed to do up to $22 million worth of emergency repairs to the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee. The project was not scheduled to start until 2012.

Lawmakers — including state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, and state Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse — used the announcement of the project to highlight what they called the state’s inadequate road spending practices.

Both said the solution starts with the Legislature preventing the shift of money from the transportation budget. Kapanke said he will introduce a bill that would require each state agency have its own biennial segregated budget.

If the bills before the Legislature receive hearings and win passage, state protocol for amending the Constitution requires approval in two consecutive legislative sessions and then voter approval in a statewide referendum.

Gottlieb said he believes the topic will be a point to debate in the upcoming 2010 elections, but many lawmakers will be too timid to make major decisions about control of transportation money.

“The longer we wait, the harder it’s going to be to get the money we need,” he said. “The stimulus provided us a bit of breathing room, but I’d like to see the 2011 Legislature get the opportunity to do something without having to wait until 2013. Let’s have the public hearing and debate.”

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