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Transit budget a key test for legislative campaigns (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Campaigns for the state Legislature and the growing debate over transportation spending are likely to collide in the November elections.

Many Wisconsin counties are lining up advisory referendums to ask voters if they support a constitutional amendment protecting Wisconsin’s transportation budget from raids to support the general budget. Those referendums would be on the November ballot.

“There’s a reason the timing is matching up with the referendums and election,” said Robb Kahl, executive director of Construction Business Group, a joint labor-management organization. “The message is out that the current path we’re on is unsustainable.”

Other private, governmental, nonprofit and labor groups supported that opinion Monday with the formation of the Finding Forward Coalition, which aims to promote a constitutional protection of the state’s transportation budget.

To amend the constitution, lawmakers must pass resolutions for the change in two consecutive sessions. Then voters must approve the change in a statewide referendum.

State Rep. Mark Gottlieb, R-Port Washington, sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment in the last session to prevent transportation budget money from being spent on nontransportation issues. The proposal failed to make it to the Senate or Assembly floor.

But Gottlieb said the advisory referendums in counties can send a strong message to state lawmakers.

“It’s a very popular issue that will undoubtedly win,” he said. “And I think it will present an important issue to candidates in terms of where they are on the issue, how they will vote and if they’re prepared to follow through with their promises.”

One such battle is taking shape in the 15th Senate District. Van Wanggaard, a Republican challenger to state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, blasted Lehman for supporting transportation budget transfers in the 2009-11 state budget.

“I’ve knocked on thousands of doors,” Wanggaard said. “And people are absolutely angered over the ways we’re spending money in Madison. Why aren’t we meeting the needs we have in transportation and spending that money on other things?”

Wanggaard said many of the shortfalls in the state’s transportation budget in the last decade could have been prevented by stopping transfers. Since 2003, an estimated $1.3 billion in transportation money has been spent for general budget purposes.

Lehman said he has no problem with an advisory referendum in November but would not say if he would support a constitutional amendment stopping budget transfers.

“Transportation spending actually increased by $84 million in this biennium,” he said. “As a member of the Joint Finance Committee, I can say sometimes we have to borrow from one set of funds to look at another.

“I don’t think anyone likes borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, but I don’t think the case can be made that transportation funding was really hurt this year.”

A significant part of the $84 million increase was thanks to stimulus money, Lehman said.

At Monday’s Finding Forward press conference, Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said stimulus money created a safety net for road building work in Wisconsin. He said that money will be gone after this summer, and lawmakers must act now to protect road money.

“We await the day,” he said, “when we can be assured transportation revenue will be spent on transportation needs.”

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One comment

  1. Everyone would like a constitutional amendment to protect their favorite issue. And driving is no exception. What this amendment won’t protect us from, however, is the future – the transportation fund is shrinking. How come, you ask?

    Lower road tax revenue from: The rising cost of fossil fuel drives people out of cars into buses and trains,


    Lower road tax revenue from: The rising efficiency of the newer cars reduces the amount of gasoline we buy, reducing the “road tax” money we have long paid for at the pump.


    Adding to those two woes, property taxes already bail out the state budget. $1.4 billion of our property taxes each year go to roads built by state tax money.

    Will a constitutional amendment protect our property taxes if a constitutionally protected but shrinking transportation fund comes up short?

    If we write an amendment let’s think it into the future.

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