By M.L. JOHNSON
RACINE, Wis. (AP) — Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Friday that he’s open to using money from Wisconsin’s general fund to shore up the state’s transportation budget while lawmakers seek other ways to raise money for roads.
The state has a projected $680 million deficit in its transportation budget, which means there isn’t enough money to pay for existing projects, let alone repair or upgrade other aging highways.
Vos spoke Friday at a rally in Racine to generate support for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit raiding the state transportation fund. Lawmakers approved the amendment with overwhelming bipartisan support after former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle diverted $1.3 billion from the fund to pay for schools and other expenses. Voters will have their say with a question on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Business leaders urged manufacturing workers and others gathered at CASE’s headquarters to vote for the amendment. CASE, which makes agricultural and other equipment, has been helping lead a nationwide effort to increase funding for roads, airports, water systems and other infrastructure critical to manufacturing.
“We’re trying to get everybody in the company, all the people working in the plants, to understand that their job really depends on economic prosperity and infrastructure investment,” said Dennis Slater, president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which is also involved in the effort.
Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said polling done by his group shows widespread support for the ballot question, but with little money to advertise on its behalf, word-of-month advocacy is important.
Vos and Rep. Cory Mason, a Democrat who represents the Racine area, also expressed confidence the amendment would pass, noting it had bipartisan support in the Legislature. The problem they face now is coming up with money to pay for transportation projects.
Lawmakers agreed earlier this year to use $27.4 million from the state’s general fund to help county governments cover higher-than-expected winter road maintenance costs and salt purchases. Vos and Mason, who serves on the budget committee, said they weren’t opposed to doing something similar next year.
Vos said he would consider toll roads or certain fee increases to help pay for transportation projects.
“As people use the system, they should pay for it,” he said, adding, “I’m not necessarily a big supporter of increasing the gas tax because that’s a declining revenue source over time as cars become more fuel efficient.”
Mason said that as someone who lives close to Illinois, where the Chicago area has numerous toll roads, he was less enthusiastic about that idea.
“But,” he said, “we’ve got to find a way to look at it and make sure this is adequately funded.”
Thompson had noted earlier that in surveys about why they chose to locate manufacturing facilities and offices in certain locations, business leaders almost always listed access to highways as among their top priorities. Mason said that has been a challenge for Racine, which is further from Interstate 94 than many communities competing for new businesses and needs good connecting roads to keep businesses there.
Some communities have already decided adopted wheel taxes in anticipation of the budget shortfall. Appleton officials voted Sept. 3 in favor of a $10 wheel tax that will raise about $1.7 million a year. Chippewa County on Sept. 9 also approved a $10 wheel tax, which is expected to raise $525,000 a year.
In addition to the projected deficit, it is uncertain how much money the state will receive from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for some large road projects. Congress temporarily averted the predicted shortfall by passing a $10.8 billion extension of the highway-spending authorization bill known as MAP-21.
The extension, signed by President Obama on Aug. 8, lasts only through May 31, which means the extension will end before Wisconsin’s next biennial budget goes into effect July 1.
— The Daily Reporter staff also contributed to this report.