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Lawmakers consider construction budget cuts

By Dan Shaw

To reduce borrowing in the state budget, Republicans might delay financing a new home for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and refrain from buying two university residence halls.

State Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, a member of the state’s Building Commission, said Friday that she and other members of her party want to remove some of the $1.17 billion in borrowing now called for in the state’s proposed 2013-15 capital budget, which will allocate money for construction projects during the next two years.

Ballweg and state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, also a commission member, said in March the state could reduce its reliance on bonding by waiting a year longer to issue bonds for a $196.6 million replacement of two buildings at the Hills Farm office complex, which houses WisDOT on Madison’s near west side.

They also called for not adopting Gov. Scott Walker’s recommendation to buy a pair of residence halls, one south of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus and one that is under construction on the UW-Platteville campus. Refraining from those purchases would reduce the bonding amount by about $94.59 million.

“That would save some money but not stop projects,” she said Friday. “It would allow us to continue building and providing jobs and stimulating the local economy.”

When she and Kaufert put their suggestions before the commission in March, they were outvoted in a rare alliance between Walker and two Democratic members of the Building Commission. Walker then argued the upcoming budget is the time to borrow for large construction projects, when interest rates remain low.

Despite that defeat, Kaufert and Ballweg’s position is gaining strength as the governor’s proposed 2013-15 budget winds its way through the Legislature. After a meeting Thursday of the state’s Joint Finance Committee, which is going through the budget piece by piece, state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said Republicans lawmakers probably will look to the capital budget to reduce bonding.

His statement came hours after the committee had voted to keep intact the nearly $1 billion in borrowing Walker had called for in his proposed transportation budget. Knudson said he is uncomfortable with that amount of bonding, despite his vote in favor of the plan, which put the state on a path to eliminate a projected $63 million deficit in the transportation budget.

The committee’s approval means lawmakers have managed to only whittle away at the budget’s proposed bonding, mostly by decreasing borrowing for the Department of Natural Resources’ land-stewardship program.

A spokesman for another member of the Joint Finance Committee, state Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade, said the subject of bonding is something that merits more discussion among a wide group of Republican lawmakers.

“When it comes up, we have to remember that those are jobs and those are issues to help to continue building Wisconsin’s economy,” said Jeff Grothman, chief of staff for LeMahieu.

A Democratic member of the finance committee, State Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, said he has not had time to consider the capital budget in detail but does not have initial objections. He acknowledged that his membership in the minority party, the Democrats only hold four of the 16 seats on the committee, gives him little power over the matter but said Walker’s support of the capital budget could help ease its passage through the Legislature.

Calls to the remaining 13 members of the finance committee were not immediately returned Friday afternoon.

Knudson said he plans to look to the Building Commission to provide recommendations on borrowing that should be cut.

That matches Ballweg’s strategy.

She said her residence hall and WisDOT proposals have the primary advantage of reducing spending while still giving the economy a boost. The Building Commission estimates that 90 construction jobs are created for every $10 million the state spends on construction.

Ballweg said her recommendation to delay the financing of the Hills Farm buildings might not push back the actual construction of the project, which is to be mostly finished by July 2016. That schedule, she said, lets lawmakers postpone a bond issuance without affecting the completion date.

“My suggestion was that they continue leasing Hills Farm for this year,” she said, “and defer that total bonding.”

According to a Building Commission report, the replacement project is mainly needed because the Hills Farm buildings are almost 50 years old and will need about $8.8 million in maintenance during the next two years.

Calls to the University of Wisconsin about the residence halls were not returned by deadline. Ballweg said a decision to not buy those properties would be even easier to make.

“The reason for not moving on this,” she said, “is they were not going to generate any new jobs.”

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