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Engineer cost analysis bill on life support

By Adam Wise

The author of a bill that would eliminate a cost analysis of state highway project engineer work has given up hope her proposal can be revived prior to the end of the Legislature’s current session Thursday.

“Unfortunately, it’s dead,” said state Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin. “It was my understanding we had all the votes on the floor, everything was good to go, and unfortunately we lost a Republican vote, which created last-minute chaos.”

That Republican vote came from Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, who voted against his party Tuesday to table an amendment to Lazich’s bill that came from Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point.

Republicans hold a slim 17-16 majority count in the governing body.

Senate Bill 499 would eliminate a requirement that the state Department of Transportation conduct a cost-benefit analysis prior to outsourcing highway engineer work, and instead require WisDOT to conduct an annual study that provides actual costs of department engineers and consultants.

The CBAs are worksheets WisDOT project managers complete on highway projects of more than $25,000 during the early estimation phase to see whether self-performing work or hiring consultants would be the cheaper alternative.

Lassa’s bill would have kept the annual report requirement, but saved the worksheets with the intent of improving what she said almost everyone agrees are a faulty estimating document.

Cowles’ unexpected vote sent the three senators nearly immediately into negotiations toward a compromise that would at least push the Green Bay Republican to move forward with the legislation prior to Thursday’s deadline.

The Legislature has until Thursday to pass bills that could become laws this year. After Thursday, elected officials then cannot take action on any legislation until next year.

Lazich said Wednesday night that she had hoped her bill could be saved, but the earliest she could get the proposal on the Senate’s calendar would be Thursday. She said even if an updated version of the bill was approved Thursday, she expected Democrats to sit on the bill.

Lazich wouldn’t elaborate on what specific concerns Cowles had with the bill, though she said where discussions were headed, they likely wouldn’t suffice for Lassa.

Cowles was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Claims that the CBAs lack accuracy in projecting the costs of consultants were supported in a 2009 Legislative Audit Bureau study. The report stated Wisconsin spent $36 million in 2007-08 on construction management consultant engineers, while during that same time frame, the worksheets estimated the work would cost $44.7 million.

WisDOT administrators have supported the proposed switch from a cost estimate before a project to analyzing costs in a yearly report. WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb was the state representative in 2005 who introduced the legislation that created the worksheets.

Lass said she is still holding out hope Republicans would work with her on an amendment yet this week, saying her office was continuing discussions with Cowles. On Thursday, she said that while she wants the worksheets saved, a suitable compromise could include increasing the threshold for when estimates are conducted to more than $25,000. She wouldn’t say what a potential new threshold could be under any amendment.

While Lazich said the bill simply ran out of time, Lassa said the Republicans only have themselves to blame.

Lassa said she tried seeking a compromise with state Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee — Lazich’s co-author on the legislation — in early February when the bill had its first public hearing, but Honadel wasn’t interested in talking.

“I think when you get stuck in a position with authors of the bill – when you reach out to try to work with them on compromise,” she said, “they reject you, and then they wait until the very end, this is what sometimes can happen.”

Lassa said if the bill fails to pass this session, she still wants to work toward a compromise this summer and fall for the Legislature’s next session.

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