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GOP candidates take on transportation spending (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Wisconsin’s Republican gubernatorial candidates are blasting Gov. Jim Doyle and the state Legislature for failing to fix the state’s transportation spending problems.

Both candidates — Mark Neumann and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker — also share the same solution for generating more money for roadwork: Shift money from sales taxes on vehicles and vehicle-related items, such as tires and other auto parts, to the state’s transportation budget.

“It’s not a new tax or a tax increase,” Neumann said. “It’s just a redirection of resources that are already there.”

The idea is worth considering, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.

“But I don’t think that can be the only solution,” he said. “It can be an ongoing source of revenue, but it will have to work with other sources.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrats’ front-running gubernatorial candidate, was unavailable for comment.

Wisconsin’s transportation budget, although relatively unshaken in the most recent biennial budget, sustained tough hits in the past decade. The Legislature in 2005 repealed gas-tax indexing, an annual gas tax adjustment that keeps pace with inflation and fuel consumption. Then, the Legislature’s Road to the Future Committee in 2006 identified a shortfall of almost $700 million for state highway projects.

Walker said Doyle’s removal of nearly $1.3 billion from the transportation budget for nontransportation spending in previous state budgets shook voters’ faith in state spending.

“The first thing we have to do is make sure that never happens again,” Walker said. “We have to protect that fund.”

That could be difficult. Two bills have been introduced this session to protect segregated budgets. One of the bills, authored by state Rep. Mark Gottlieb, R-Port Washington, specifically protects the transportation budget.

Because the bills would change the state constitution, they would have to pass in two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum. The bills were introduced in February and March 2009, but the committees they were referred to have not scheduled public hearings for the bills. The chairmen of the committees did not return calls to explain why.

“I’m a little bit surprised,” Gottlieb said. “This is really a slam-dunk as good policy and good politics.”

Jim Holperin, D-Conover and chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources, disagreed. He said the lack of action reflects how divisive the bills are. It’s unlikely, he said, there will be any movement on the bills before the session ends in spring.

“It’s just a very controversial topic to tackle at this time in the two-year cycle, and there’s really no time left to do anything significant,” Holperin said. “I also imagine it would be a lot of groups telling us what the problems are but then telling the lawmakers to come up with new ideas and support new revenue sources or tax increases.”

Neumann and Walker said ignoring the problem is not a solution. Beyond mentioning high-speed rail and regional transit authorities in his State of the State speech Tuesday, Doyle did not discuss transportation. Both candidates called it a startling omission.

“The ball’s been dropped on a lot of different fronts,” Neumann said.

Politics get much tougher inside the Capitol, Gottlieb said. There’s a strong case to be made for moving a transportation-related sales tax to the transportation budget, but it will not be easy.

“Any time you move sales tax, it’s digging you a deeper hole in the general fund,” he said. “Any further drain on that is going to be a problem.

“Could the new governor make that move in a budget? Sure. But outside of the budget process, that’s going to be impossible.”

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