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Counties try to save state road budget

Wisconsin is among the few remaining states that do not have constitutional protections that segregate transportation revenues, according to the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. The red states on the map have no protection in their constitution, the green states do, and the association is still investigating whether the white states have protections.  (Image courtesy of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.)

Wisconsin is among the few remaining states that do not have constitutional protections that segregate transportation revenues, according to the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. The red states on the map have no protection in their constitution, the green states do, and the association is still investigating whether the white states have protections. (Image courtesy of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.)

Sean Ryan
sean.ryan@dailyreporter.com

Supporters of protecting the state’s road budget from future raids are warning the loss of transportation money could get worse without a constitutional amendment.

The boards of at least two Wisconsin counties — Waukesha and Calumet — are considering advisory referendums on the November ballots asking voters if they want the state transportation budget segregated.

“That money is segregated revenue,” said Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, “and we’re looking at over $1 billion that has been transferred that could be in the ground right now.”

The local advisory referendums are a step toward the planned push to amend the state constitution to prevent raids on the transportation budget, Vrakas said.

But previous raids on the state transportation budget could pale in comparison to what will happen if supporters’ latest fears are realized.

The amount of money the transportation budget has lost to the raids so far is relatively minor. During the past eight years, $1.3 billion was taken out of the transportation budget to pay for general state operations.

But, because it borrowed the money, the state has returned all but $301 million to the transportation program. The loss of actual construction money has been, on average, $40 million a year, compared with the $1.57 billion that is put into the transportation budget annually.

But an emerging fear is that the past raids on the transportation budget could come back to drain even more money. The state uses its overall budget to pay off the $1.07 billion in debt created to reimburse the transportation budget. With those debt payments straining the state’s overall budget, there is a concern the state will force the transportation budget to pay off the debt, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

“It’s hard to separate concerns with trial balloons,” he said. “I think everyone is dancing around this issue.”

The proposed amendment to the state constitution would prevent legislators from pushing debt payments onto the transportation budget.

State Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, said the concern probably stems from a May 26 Legislative Fiscal Bureau report that outlined debt payments draining hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s general budget. He said he opposes making the transportation budget pay off that debt.

“It would just exacerbate the problem.” Stone said.

The $301 million the transportation budget already has lost is relatively minor, he said, but not negligible.

However, he said, amending the constitution to protect the transportation budget is an essential step to gaining approval for new sources of transportation money.

“The general feeling in the Legislature is people are reluctant to go to bat for more spending in the transportation fund,” Stone said, “if they feel like it will be spent on everything and anything else.”

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