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Walker would sign budget with no new road borrowing

Gov. Scott Walker, who steadfastly opposes raising taxes or fees to pay for roads, would sign a state budget that includes no borrowing for highways and other transportation needs in Wisconsin, resulting in significant delays to ongoing and planned projects, his spokeswoman said Friday.

While that is not his preferred option, a Walker spokeswoman said if the Legislature decides to remove $1.3 billion in borrowing the governor proposed, Walker would sign it. The idea did not meet with an immediately warm reception among lawmakers.

That’s a “pretty stark concept,” said Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which is now going through the governor’s budget proposals line by line.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos first publicly voiced the possibility of doing away with the borrowing on Wednesday, saying that would be an option since Walker refuses to consider raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees. Vos offered the idea to Walker in a private meeting that day, which was also attended by Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

“When Speaker Vos floated the idea of the Legislature removing all bonding for transportation from the state budget, it was communicated that this would have a devastating impact on the transportation fund and transportation projects across the state as a ripple effect,” Patrick said in an email.

Walker has argued that Wisconsin’s next budget could authorize $1.3 billion in new transportation borrowing over the next two years and the state would still be in a position to take on the smallest amount in any budgetary period going  back for a decade. The reason, he has said, is that he had called for no new borrowing for vertical projects in the next budget, which will govern spending between July 1 this year and June 30, 2017.

Even so, lawmakers modified those plans last month, putting $86.2 million into the budget for a long-planned chemistry building at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus and $15 million for an arts center that is to be built as part of the Confluence Project in Eau Claire.

Without Walker’s proposed $1.3 billion in transportation borrowing, every road project would probably be affected: from megaprojects like the Zoo Interchange west of Milwaukee, the Interstate 39/90 expansion from Madison south to Illinois, the I-94 expansion from Milwaukee south to Illinois, as well as other state highway work, bridge repairs and freight-rail maintenance, according to information provided by Walker’s office.

Nygren, a Republican from Marinette and a chairman of the state’s Joint Finance Committee, said he doesn’t want to delay roads projects. Doing so, he said, would put lawmakers only under greater pressure in two years to figure out a way to deal with pent-up demand.

Nygren and other Republicans have talked about reducing the level of Walker’s proposed transportation borrowing by between $300 million and $800 million.

Republican lawmakers and Walker are at an impasse, and the budget remains stalled. Nygren described current negotiations over transportation spending as being “a little bit of a stare off at this time.”

Another matter up for debate is whether the state’s prevailing wage law — which sets salaries for workers on public works jobs — should be repealed or just scaled back. And a financing deal to pay for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena reached with Walker, Milwaukee officials, Republican legislative leaders and team owners was just released Thursday.

Regarding the Bucks deal, Nygren and other Republicans have said they want to give the public, and the lawmakers who could approve it, time to understand it before rushing to a vote.

“There’s no real big sense of urgency to get this to Joint Finance,” Nygren said.

The Joint Finance Committee originally planned to complete its work last Friday, but the Republican-controlled panel did not meet this week and it now has no meetings scheduled for next week.

Dan Shaw at the Daily Reporter contributed to this story.

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